Applications Engineer ROI vs. Problem Solving

When I was an apps engineer for Supertex, I focused on flat panel displays and power supplies. The companies I supported were essentially starting up in their business, and looking for the best display drivers. These companies worked with displays that required high voltage drivers integrated with low voltage logic.

They were big customers to support, but I enjoyed working with even the small customers; the ones that brought the interesting problems that make engineering fun.

There were two problems that really showed the creative and investigative approach to applications:

The first situation was with a customer that was working with over a dozen EL lamps for a new system design. At the time, the company assumed it would need more than 12 EL lamp drivers — one for each lamp. My focus was displays and not lamps, yet I came up with a solution that was display related rather than lamp related.

With the display approach, I showed the customer a two-chip solution instead of many. Though it did not provide the larger business volume, it did make the customer very happy that we were able to come up with a solution that would save it money.

The second problem started with a customer returning a part that had failed. A semiconductor company has the ability to take a failed chip and identify the failure mode — or so I thought.

The product engineer stripped the plastic and visually inspected the IC. The report was “EOS failure” (Electrical Over-Stress) — failure due to over-voltage or over-current. To me, this was meaningless. I had to explain to the customer the meaning of this in the best way I could. The customer continued to have intermittent failures and sent back the failed ICs, which we kept reporting as “EOS.”

I started to get concerned and questioned the customer about the application, voltage, and everything else that I could think of to give me a picture of why the problem was occurring. Now, essentially, the part was a 450V part in a 400V application. Because of my development background, I started to question the voltage being applied.

On a whim, I asked our product engineer to test the part beyond the 450V spec. The basis was to see where the failure of the parts actually occurred. The product engineer found that the failure rate increased dramatically above 460V — to me, this was not enough margin. I pushed to have the part returned to engineering, and they found an error in the design. They quickly corrected it and the company flushed out the old parts with the new. The customer that was frequently reporting problems never came back with any additional failures.

In both of these cases, the customer purchased at low volumes, but the ROI, in my opinion, was well worth the time spent. In the first case, the customer was very satisfied that it left with a cost-reduced solution for its product. I am sure the engineer would look to our company for future solutions. In the second case, spending the extra time on the customer's problem solved a bigger problem that would have probably been bad for our business in the future.

Now that I'm back on the design side of things and out of the semiconductor industry, I recently had a problem with an analog switch that was not following the data sheet. It was operating under all the right conditions, yet under a certain condition, would not switch. I contacted applications numerous times and offered the apps engineer a board that continuously exhibited the problem, but they never said “send it.”

I posted on their discussion board and had people look at the report, but no solutions. To this day, a year later and after several attempts to get the problem in view, no one at the company has taken this problem on. Now, I'm not a large-volume customer, but I can say that when I look for an analog switch, I know what company I would not select first. I am now doing some contract work for potential large volume designs. What is the potential ROI loss for this company with the bad reputation?

Note that I am not naming companies only out of respect — they do have other products of high value.

Please share your thoughts and experiences.

11 comments on “Applications Engineer ROI vs. Problem Solving

  1. Michael Dunn
    March 28, 2013

    >Note that I am not naming companies only out of respect 

    True, we don't want to be carelessly dissing companies. But when it's such a clear case of bad product and bad support, it's a disservice to everyone to not name names. After all, they clearly have no respect for you.

  2. eafpres
    March 29, 2013

    When I was in an antenna startup company I had engineering, manufacturing, and customer support responsilbility.  Since it was me, one RF engineer, one ME, a tech, and a couple of manufacturing folks, I got to do a lot of support.  It was educational and interesting, but also very stressful in that we could not control the application well enough; the devices went into passenger cars, and the electronics hardware providers typically installed, or the end customer (say, a fleet owner) did it in their shop.  There were days I would have preferred not to deal with them, but no customer went without reply and ultimate resolution.

  3. Netcrawl
    March 30, 2013

    @Michael I agree with you but companies have duties and responsibilities, yes you're we can't just name companies for doing or having bad products. Companies should provide some customer suppor or deepen its relationship with consumers. These are not issues and should not be an problem, we can solve this through mutual understanding  and relationship. These are just sort of technical support things-its fixable. 

  4. Brad Albing
    March 30, 2013

    And you walk that fine line – naming them and saying something that might be perceived as “bad” (i.e., slanderous) can put you (the commenter/reviewer) in a precarious position. Of course, you can fall back to saying, “I'm just expressing my opinion” and that may put you in the clear. But again, we walk that fine line.

  5. Brad Albing
    March 30, 2013

    Been there. Not unlike being an FAE. Customers need support and you ignore their needs at your (the company's) peril.

  6. eafpres
    March 30, 2013

    Really good FAEs are worth a lot.  Ideally, you want FAEs supporting your customer service and handling nearly 100% of issues.  That's because if it has to go back into design engineering to solve it you are not only eating the cost of those engineers, but the cost of delaying whatever they are working on (opportunity cost).  Ouch!

    Good FAEs also make a lot of sales by telling customers what they need in a convincing way; in some industries customer's will hardly talk to a “sales” person becasuse they want to hear it from an engineer.  Did you ever have that situation?

  7. Brad Albing
    March 30, 2013

    Constantly. I could discuss projects w/ them at precisely their level. You're exactly correct – if you can discuss at their level, if you really understand their design – you're 3/4ths of the way to making the sale. If you can't, the customer will let you know pretty quickly that you're wasting their time.

    And also, right on the money (literaly) w/ regard to the FAE helping the customer cf. the apps guys back at the head-office doing it. Companies that let go of FAEs risk spending a lot more money (when all costs are considered as you noted) by having the apps engineer rather than a staff of FAEs do the field work.

  8. SunitaT
    March 31, 2013

    Note that I am not naming companies only out of respect — they do have other products of high value.

    @Derek, its really surprising that a company which produces high value products just ignored your problem. Did you try raising this issue with higher authority in that company ?

  9. RedDerek
    April 1, 2013

    The company is one of the big semiconductors. I knew quite a few people within scattered about the country. I try to elevate, but their system kept pushing me to the forums. No luck with multiple postings, hoping it would get some attention.

    I ended up with a different solution – another vendor's IC.

    The problem was most likely an unusal application whereby I see there was a fault. Yet they seemed not to care. Finding another vendor was my best solution and thus not worth the effort to push for some answer. If a company does not want to help designers and there are alternatives, it is that company's lost. It just makes me more cautious about using their parts in that particular product line.

  10. Brad Albing
    April 1, 2013

    >These are just sort of technical support things-its fixable.

    Side note – it's generally fixable, but that doesn't mean that it will be fixed. It will cost specific dollar amounts to fix. So a company will weigh that cost against the expected return.

  11. Brad Albing
    April 1, 2013

    Exactly. Did I mention that customers need support and you ignore their needs at your (the company's) peril.

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