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New Electronics Roundtable: More support needed as analogue design gets harder

There is a perception that analogue design is getting harder; alongside the usual time to market issues, the devices with which designers work are becoming more complex and there is a diminishing skills base.

Looking to discuss these and related issues, New Electronics brought together analogue manufacturers and a distributor to discuss whether analogue design is, indeed, getting harder and, if it is, how the industry is helping its customers to develop products.

Priming the pump, New Electronics surveyed its readers to gauge their opinions and you confirmed that analogue design isn't getting any easier. We also asked how you rated your knowledge of analogue components and design techniques: almost half of the respondents said it wasn't as good as it could be. And when we asked about support from manufacturers and distributors through FAEs, 21% of you said 'very good' or better, which leaves almost 80% of respondents not as impressed.

But is that last figure as bad as it may appear? Not according to the roundtable participants. Dave Robertson, vp of analogue technology with Analog Devices, said: "Looking at the figures another way, 69% said FAEs are doing the same or better. Products are more complex, but FAEs are smarter and their job is getting harder. In the 1980s, they only supported converters and amplifiers; today, it's the whole range."

Alastair Boyd, Linear Technology's UK managing director, added: "FAE support is appreciated, but only when the customer has a problem. Then they need support and that needs people. But it's something of a vicious circle. It's harder to get analogue talent, so people in the field maybe are not as good as they could be. If customers perceive one or two FAEs to be underskilled, they believe all are poor."

Someone who should know is Jon Baxter, FAE manager with Arrow Design Solutions. "We have specialists by franchise, with knowledge of components from particular manufacturers. Because they work multiple franchises, they can't have in depth knowledge. But they can handle the top level, then get support from manufacturers to follow up."

Salvatore Napolitano, director of product marketing, Europe, for National Semiconductor, added: "Our experience is that it's related to time to market pressures and knowledge. FAEs need to have broad knowledge, but engineers themselves need to keep up to date. Nevertheless, the industry is responding to the need to help customers to do things faster and better, although we rely increasingly on distribution."

Anders Reisch, executive director, Nordic applications and sales with Maxim, said the role of FAEs was crucial to his company. "If they don't understand the customer's needs, then it is hard to support them and we can't understand their future requirements. Face to face contact is essential in order for us to make good devices for the future. FAEs are the company's eyes and ears."

Is analogue design getting harder? It is in Robertson's opinion. "Engineering, in general, is getting harder," he believed. "Everyone is working at the edge of their capacity. If you are in a competitive market, people doing 'safe' will not have the best products."

Boyd noted that engineers are having to become more generalist and that is creating a skills gap. "Manufacturers are having to fill that gap," he said. "The best starting point is still an unambiguous datasheet, supported by demo boards and circuit designs. But FAEs are still key because they can be the difference between a project taking six months or 18months."

Manufacturers are also developing more design tools – some of which are available online. "Tools are essential," Boyd continued, "but if you have problems, you need to work with FAEs because tools will only take you so far. Engineers like information, but it's a people business."

Recognising the growing skills gap, combined with time to market and cost pressures, some manufacturers have moved to develop modular solutions: Linear and Maxim are two such companies.

Reisch said Maxim continued to develop what he called the 'building blocks'. "But these will be integrated in the future. The market driver will be more integration. If a company is agile enough and has a good enough library of building blocks, it will be possible to provide fpga like products and this will be attractive."

Boyd pointed out that digital solutions bring analogue problems. "Can designers solve these themselves or should they go for an integrated solution?," he asked. "Linear is putting its know how into modules: for example, a power supply for use by digital engineers. These integrated solutions save time and space; in some ways, it's like using an asic."

Robertson noted these integrated solutions need some form of programmability. "Because they will be sold into more applications, they need to be reconfigurable."

Napolitano said modularity has a clear role. "Power management is an example because it addresses particular needs and solves particular problems. If you have a signal path, then it becomes more complex."

But he says time to market is the challenge. "How long does an engineer have to select a part?" he asked. "I believe we, as an industry, can help customers to get things done. By integrating, we solve more problems, but make selection more difficult."

Reisch added: "Hardware engineers will need to be more 'software-ish' in order to differentiate their products. With the growth in battery powered products, everything will need to be small and therefore integrated."

Napolitano returned to the FAE discussion. "We all know that if the customer is big, it will get dedicated support. That changes with company size. Analogue is becoming a challenge in terms of how knowledge is distributed."

National has developed Webench, a set of online design tools. "These tools are addressing the 'no touch' customers," Napolitano said, "but also the time management needs of engineers in larger customers. While we still need to work on tools, our experience says this is the right thing for our customers. And we expect our distributors to use Webench to increase knowledge through the analogue chain."

The roundtable participants concluded that analogue design is a challenge and that manufacturers and distributors need to provide a range of support systems. Robertson concluded: "Sometimes you need someone to hold your hand, sometimes you need access to experts."

Reisch: "Integration benefits consumer and industrial applications, but if you sell the same part to everyone, they can't differentiate their products. So we need to be more agile." Napolitano: "The challenge is what is the role of the distributor? We want them to become more systems oriented, creating verticals, because they grow their value."

But Baxter had the last word. "That's what distribution is all about; product selection – what do you need? We can help by putting as much in front of the engineer as possible. But the defining point is 'when does engagement begin?'. If there's a problem halfway through the design phase, solving that problem can be harder. We can add value by solving the problems and getting engineers through the roadblocks."

The Analogue Design roundtable was sponsored by:
Analog Devices
Arrow Design Solutions
Linear Technology
Maxim Integrated Products
National Semiconductor

Dave Robertson, vp analogue technology, Analog Devices
Jon Baxter, FAE Manager, Arrow Design Solutions
Alastair Boyd, UK managing director, Linear Technology
Anders Reisch, executive director, Nordic applications and sales, Maxim Integrated Products
Salvatore Napolitano, director of product marketing, Europe, National Semiconductor

Graham Pitcher

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