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Outlook 2013: Easing the 'find, design and buy' process

If there is one design pressure above any other in today's environment, it is that of time to market. But an increasing concern to customers is the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a project.

While cost is always important, the actual component bill of materials (BOM) is becoming much less of an issue to customers than the costs involved in software development and the overall length of the design cycle. So, design engineers face growing pressure to bring products to market that offer increasing amounts of functionality and performance in ever shorter design timeframes.

Another important issue is that engineers – and particularly those fresh out of university – are increasingly not specialised nor expert in areas such as power or analogue design for example.
They are expected to have a broader skillset and knowledge base. Meanwhile, design teams are not getting any bigger, which means that specialist know how is becoming increasingly thin on the ground. And next generation products need to implement ever higher amounts of functionality and differentiation, which can mean significantly increased complexity.

Engineers need more and more support for the design and development of new products, which means not just component sample availability from distributors, but also the easy availability of design resources such as hardware proven reference designs, application notes, PCB footprints and schematics, and CAD and Spice models.

This growing time to market pressure, in conjunction with the requirement for higher levels of design support, opens up a significant opportunity for companies such as RS to help engineers get from concept to creation as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Online resources
Clearly, design engineers are becoming increasingly reliant upon online sources of design support and more comfortable with the use of forums and discussion boards, for example. Along with the widening availability of open source software, including operating systems, design templates and code libraries, there is also a proliferation of open source hardware designs and IP. The use of open source hardware, such as the Beagleboard or Arduino, is also increasing steadily, in conjunction with sharing of ideas and concepts via online design communities, such as RS' DesignSpark.com. And more specific hardware IP, such as reusable high speed memory interfaces, is increasingly available, along with easily downloadable software stacks and drivers.

While the use of open source hardware is increasing, other custom alternatives are made possible with the significant reduction in recent years in the cost of board prototyping. Engineers are increasingly using this first design iteration as their system development board, rather than a traditional microcontroller specific development kit. This first prototype can be significantly closer to the end product than can be achieved by the use of an off the shelf kit and should lead to further improved designs that are primarily bug fixed iterations of the first. In addition to the cost reduction of custom made boards, there has been a strong upsurge in the popularity and availability of free and increasingly functional PCB-design tools such as DesignSpark PCB.

Online tools for sourcing and buying
For the past two years, RS has focused it efforts on supporting engineers and has developed a string of eCommerce initiatives, including advanced parametric search tools to aid fast, accurate product selection and to create an efficient purchasing experience for customers. These sophisticated tools are essential to handle the introduction of 5000 electronics products each month to our online product range.

* PCB design

While these initiatives have brought significant improvements to the work processes of engineers, RS has gone a step further to develop an online design ecosystem which remodels the way in which design engineers source and share information. Two years on from the launch of DesignSpark.com and DesignSpark PCB, more than 100,000 engineers are now engaged in the DesignSpark community in virtually every country across the globe, with more than 160,000 downloads of the schematic capture and PCB design tool.

Drawing on research conducted among DesignSpark users, the recent release of DesignSpark PCB Version 4.0 is a substantial extension of the software's capabilities. Version 4.0 has evolved into a complete engineering solution and makes the flow from design to purchase considerably quicker and easier. The simplicity of the DesignSpark PCB user interface with its built in wizards has now been combined with substantial time saving benefits for engineers. New functionality within Version 4.0 includes tools to obtain quotes for the BOM and production quotes from PCB manufacturing and assembly subcontractors, and an enhanced library manager, featuring an easy to use attribute and part number driven interface to an extended library of more than 80,000 components and still growing.

* Component library

ModelSource is a library that contains more than 80,000 component schematics and footprints of semiconductors, passives and electromechanical components from leading manufacturers. It is available via DesignSpark.com, with components available in more than 20 formats for use with other popular PCB design software packages. ModelSource is also integrated into DesignSpark PCB Version 4.0, greatly enhancing the software tool's existing library.

* 3D CAD

Another important way of speeding design time is the integration of mechanical computer aided design (MCAD) and electronic (ECAD) and the gap between them has taken a long time to close. The ability to visualise the PCB in three dimensions, especially in combination with the design of enclosures, highlights any problem areas early in the design process. Not only does this help to keep project lead times to a minimum, but early identification of potential problems also reduces the need for expensive design changes later in the process. Collaborative design enables changes to be made immediately without having to wait for concept drawings or expensive prototypes.

A number of tools are now available for creating realistic design concepts, including the free SketchUp from Trimble. This community based collaborative approach to product design can help minimise the time needed to create concepts. To support engineers using these mechanical design tools, a huge number of models is available from RS Components, enabling the free download of a 3D model of the required components. SketchUp even supports the simulation of moving parts, highlighting any potential electromechanical problems early in the design process.

2013 and beyond

By offering these online design resources free of charge to engineers via Designspark.com, RS is investing in the key tools to enable designers to deliver excellence more quickly. The latest version of DesignSpark PCB is the realisation of a complete design ecosystem, from concept to creation. Integrating functionality such as the BOM and PCB manufacturing production quote tools and the ModelSource component library, eases the 'Find, Design and Buy' process significantly for engineering and product development departments. RS will continue to work with its customers to further develop tools and resources to help engineers adapt to the changing demands of a dynamic and fast moving industry.

RS Components
RS Components and Allied Electronics are the trading brands of Electrocomponents, the world's leading high service distributor of electronics and maintenance products.

With operations in 32 countries, it offers more than 550,000 products through the internet, catalogues and at trade counters to more than 1million customers, shipping more than 46,000 parcels on the same day the orders are received. Products are sourced from 2500 leading suppliers of electronics, automation and control, test and measurement, electrical and mechanical components.

Electrocomponents, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, had revenues of £1.27billion in its financial year which ended on 31 March 2012.

Author
Martin Keenan, Head of Applications Strategy, RS Components

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