Selecting your Electronics Designer

In the authors opinion it is possible to employ an Electronics Designer without having a deep understanding of electronics. However, the employer should insist on understanding the principles PCB fragment involved, even if not the precise details of operation. It is, unfortunately, quite difficult to gauge the quality of an engineers work "from the outside looking in." It is easier to measure the quantity of a designers work - but being thorough is one of the key ingredients an employer should value - and fast is rarely thorough. (On that point - one key indicator of being thorough is a preference for an ordered, un-interrupted workflow). So, actually, it is probably not that hard to list the qualities needed in a design engineer - but it is a little harder to determine how well a designer meets those criteria. A recruitment consultant may overcome that, but they get paid to sell the people on their books (and making sure the sale does not go somewhere else) - that is a conflict of interest as to achieve his sale the recruitment consultant only needs the employer to accept anyone, whereas the employer wants the best person for the job, within the time available.

Design is about communication. That may sound trite, you could as much say that Sales is about communication, and Management also. Different organisations have varying engineering cultures, some more conducive to real engineering than others. How well your new hire gets on with his or her co-workers is really important. That culture plays an important part. If an employer has no full time design staff these comments are still very much valid - the culture is formed betwen the other subcontractors being employed and the point-of-contact (probably the boss) of the employers company. If it is a competitive environment, make sure you are not employing a lamb, if a cooperative environment, check he or she is not a shark. Above all, the employer should be honest with the new employee about why they are being employed - one complaint among engineers is being employed on the basis of doing one job, but the projects they are then asked to work on being something quite different.

Look for designers that provide information. It is a waste having a "closed book" designer work for a company - either subcontract or as an employee - after a period of time the designer becomes indispensible, not because he or she is so good, but because they simply do not pass on the information that would allow the employer to function without their presence. A designer who provides copies of circuit diagrams, PCB overlays, CAD files, notes, and makes regular backups - they are the ones to keep. While there are occasionally valid reasons, practices which highlight an undesirable engineer or design house are:

Security through Obscurity

Not telling people about something doesn't necessarily make it secure. For instance, perhaps a manufacturer might make a device with a "secret" communications protocol, and think that by not making it public no other company will be able to retrofit equipment to their proprietary system. (In the first place, they would be alienating customers and potential third party support in the industry, but that is not the point) But if there was no actual encryption or other security, all it takes is someone with the right knowledge, and perhaps a little luck, to come along and find the back door, and the security is lost. Security through Obscurity is very little security at all. It is the sort of security a dilbert-type manager dreams up.

In the field of Cryptology, "Security through Obscurity" is widely questioned as a principle. Most such systems have proven to be poorly designed. Perhaps the best model is the 20 Year old Data Encryption Standard (DES). Complete details of DES operation have been available since its release - for 20 years it was algorithmically secure. As of 17 July 1998 brute force attacks have been developed that can crack a ciphertext-plaintext pair in about 56 hours - but that is not actually a failure of the algorithm, DES has stood the test of time brilliantly. For security choose algorithm or patent - not obscurity.

  • Circuit diagrams unavailable
  • Source code unavailable or poorly commented
  • Numbers rubbed off of integrated circuits
  • Parts lists unavailable, or without parts costs
  • Factory test and calibration not described (if complicated)
  • Secret principles - "Security through Obscurity"

Electronic Designers can be found using google (but skip the ads) or other search engine [You've found one:-)], through some specialist magazines, and by asking around for recommendations. As far as the author knows, there are no reputable online directories. There are industry organisations (such as IEEE, IPC) but many designers will not be members.

In Selecting your designer, use these criteria:

  1. ABILITY - Check the designers ability to produce and deliver by examples of his or her work. Check the examples are the designers own work. Co-operative procjects are great, as long as they tell you which part they played in that project. Don't be fooled by flash tools (they are like fast cars), buzzwords, or bravado - what counts is what gets delivered.

  2. TIMESCALE - Turnaround time for recent projects. Simple microprocessor circuitry should take 8-16 weeks from spec to prototype - longer if a significant amount of firmware is required. To get faster delivery usually results in exponentially rising costs, - or cut corners. Do give the designer some credit if they say they can do the job more quickly - often designers don't factor making the PCB or debugging the design. If a designer says the project took a year, you are probably looking at a very realistic project indeed. This sort of thing happens - often the employer gives the engineer so much other work that the project gets interrupted - and the project was probably BIG

  3. BUDGET - A subcontract designer may be reluctant to estimate costs on your project before having all the details, but they will often be more forthcoming with the amount charged for another, similar sized job completed recently. Again, give the designer some credit - if you have a simple job, but the last project the designer undertook lasted a year - then the designer is likely to over-estimate your work.

  4. OUR ADVERT - Effective communication is absolutely essential to your project being successful. Find a designer that speaks your language. Spend the time to work over your specification with them. If you have a clear idea of what you need and like what you are reading, then why not use an Australian Electronics Designer such as AirBorn? We will make the effort to keep in touch by phone, and we spell out everything you could possibly want to know about us in black and white light blue, right here on this website.:-)


  5. DEPENDABILITY - Look for a designer with the credentials to do the job. Electronics Design and Software are two fields where things just go wrong - there are cost overruns, bugs, difficulties and revisions - it is important to engage the sort of person who can see those processes through. Accountability is important. An employer might think that bull-headedness is needed, however most engineers are meek retiring types, what is really needed is dogged persistence - Accountability, Dependabiltiy.

  6. SPECIALTY - Industry Specialization is useful (e.g. If you make eft-pos machines, then employ people who have already worked on eft-pos machine design). But it is very much over-valued by employers. A good designer will adapt quite quickly to new projects, and pick up the requirements reasonably rapidly. They will be producing good results inside of a month, and be industry-savvy within a few months at most. What matters more is whether the designer or subcontractor is capable of producing the project technology that the employer requires. - e.g. SMT, PC based, realtime acquisition, battery powered, or whatever else may be appropriate for the task.
eftpos terminal
Hardware design - 1997

Engaging an Engineer

If your work involves much more than just copying a circuit diagram and laying out a quick PCB, it would likely benefit from a bit of creativity and flair. There is passion involved - the sort of people who do this work do it because they enjoy it - they like taking the concept that you have, bashing the unworkable bits out and then turning it into something new, clean, elegant and complete - then switching it on, and watching it work. Their success is your success - they have made the design operate, you can get out there and sell (or use) the thing.

You need to help this along. Engaging the engineer in your project will do it - so sell your requirements to him - ("if we had xyz feature we could sell in this new market") and be open and honest about the details of your project. Even if the designer is subcontract vs a direct employee, it is very unlikely that they will take your ideas and try and to market it themselves. It would kill their reputation. But, you need trust on both sides; if you don't feel comfortable with a subcontractor you are talking to, just politely move on.

It is also about timing. Don't be too worried by an engineer who says "I will have to get back to you about that" - some of the biggest mistakes The author has made have been in answering engineering questions too quickly. Otherwise, keeping the momentum in a project can be very good. You can help this by ensuring the engineer has one point of contact in your company - a project manager - usually yourself. If the engineer asks a question or offers alternatives, try and address it in a tight timeframe, and don't forget about it - keep a list. Samples and interfacing equipment are usually critical - get those to your engineer as soon as possible. If an engineer is making the effort to stay in touch, giving him or her a few minutes on the phone, or a few lines by return email may be all the feedback needed to help them turn a "pass" level project into a "distinction"

Employing for a single project

The material above can be read from the perspective of employing a person full time, or employing a contractor or subcontractor - it is about employing someone for the long term growth of the employers business. The goal is different when there is a single project in mind - then the target is the company, contractor or subcontractor that can best produce the design at a reasonable cost in a reasonable length of time.

Normally the employer would start with a list of candidates (subcontractors or contractors), rank them according to criteria, and then contact each about the project. This initial contact may be by email, but would usually involve a phone call as well. Keep the information provided brief, but not deceptive. The employer should avoid sending subcontractors a large document or Request-For-Quote and asking for their feedback - many subcontractors will put the review off. From the responses, and based on the ranking, the employer should pick a short list.

Talking to the subcontractor. When you phone, make sure you are speaking to the guy (or woman) who will be doing most of the work. Unfortunately, if you are speaking to a Sales person, they are likely to be quite good at telling you what you want to hear, and you won't really be getting the feedback you need. It is quite important to engage the engineer, and prove your commitment to the project also. During that inital phone call, unconsciously, the engineer is interviewing you as much as you are interviewing him.

A large amount of effort is required in the initial stages of a design project, both for employer and the designer, in examining the concept, writing out ideas, working out how the project could be acheived, and as is often required, arriving at estimated production costs.

If the job is large, it is pretty normal to consider two or three subcontractors for the same job to the estimate stage, but it would be pretty unusual to have all of them start the job. The grey area is having two or three subcontractors produce detailed quotes. With complicated electronics, a lot of work goes into producing a quotation, to the point that the subcontractor really has to start the design work to do it - or make "educated guesses". Ballpark estimates are a different matter - most subcontractors will be able to provide these without starting the work, but it will still take some amount of time. To get a quotation from two or three subcontractors for a complicated project the employer may need to pay each of them a "feasibility study" fee. In any case, normally the selection process has narrowed the field to one favourite even before the final detail of the product is worked through in great detail.

An employer choosing a design subcontractor should probably avoid "trying a small job first". It does sound like a good idea and it probably is a good idea if the employer really needs that small job done, and the subcontractor is a good fit for the task. Every project should be considered on its own merits. If the employer has difficulty establishing that a design subcontractor can reliably complete the larger project, completing a smaller task first does not really alter the situation, - credibility should be established by references and examples of the subcontractors past work. In "trying a small job first" the employer might even find the nature (or size) of the project causes the design subcontractor to underperform by lowering the projects priority, - when a job is important to a client, it rubs off on the sub-contractors.

If an employer expects to "design it as we go" - which is perfectly valid for "Green fields" research (ie more the Research side of R & D) - then the employer really need to engage employees full time or pay by the hour. An experienced subcontractor knows that they are unlikely to get paid for all of their time if there is not a clear objective at the start.


PCB design 1999

An employer dealing with subcontractors and small businesses has one very simple tool that can make the relationship work much better - pay the designer quickly for their work. It helps any small business to pay them quickly - larger businesses probably don't notice, small businesses do.

A Businesses Research and Development Spend. A business needs to continuously spend on R & D. When the business stops spending on R&D there is a short term gain (the reduction in outgoing wages or payments) and a long term loss (there are no new products to sell). The quality of the spend is important, it has to be effective. There is great variation, even within an industry, - some companies continue to spend a lot on R&D - others very little. It could be that some managers are not quite as aware of the economics of Research & Development and really only focus on the problem when the situation has badly deteriorated. An alternative to this is to become a retailer - to not develop new products - but instead just import them.

Whether to "outsource" or "inhouse" the engineering for product design is a decision for the employer that is quite heavily influenced by outside advice. I think my most useful contribution would be to say that the decision really should be based on availability of the employees. If the employer has the people available already, and if they can can complete the project efficiently then it doesn't make sense to outsource the work.

One caveat: Consider the big picture, - when you outsource you quite often get greater control over costs and risk, because they get quantified up front. When you operate inhouse some portions of the project cost will be invisible - if your project goes over budget, it is unlikely you will remember that 'Fred' didn't answer customer calls because he was working hard on finishing the new circuit board. And, subcontracting some projects can speed up the overall flow quite a bit.

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We hope you decide to include AirBorn Electronics in your selection process.

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©2013 AirBorn - Last updated 27 April 2013