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Demanding More From Analog Takes Work

We've discussed in other blogs the pros and cons of using an integrated analog device. I have some additional thoughts on this subject to kick around. I've worked as a design engineer, and I've worked as a field apps engineer. As a result, I've seen the issues from both sides.

If an engineer is going to use an IC vendor's product, the engineer wants a reference design that is pretty close to what he or she is designing. With today's tight, compressed schedules, having a reference design in hand (schematic, BOM, and maybe even Gerber files) will do wonders for building confidence with the engineer and shorten time-to-market.

This has always been important with any electronic design using any technology, but when considering an integrated analog device (or a custom device), a solid reference design can be the difference between going forward or not. So from the point of view of the apps engineer, rock-solid technical advice must be dispensed. The design engineer must feel comfortable and sure that the apps engineer knows all the answers or can get them on a moment's notice . Once there is confidence in that relationship, smooth sailing is far more likely.

With today's complex designs, engineers are looking for someone who is more of a partner than just some guy selling parts — more like Nordstrom and less like Amazon.

Design Engineers: Make sure you ask the right questions, the tough questions, of the vendor that wants to sell you a complex analog component. Do you understand how it works? How it will fit into the design you are working on? Can you get an eval board or platform on which you can run your tests? Is that board free — or at least at a cost that will be rebated/applied to later purchases? Do you know how much support you will need after the sale? When you realize you need lots more help, will you be able to get it? What is the expected lead-time for engineering samples of the devices? What about production quantities?

Apps engineers: Are you able to help (and keep helping) a customer that needs help — and then needs lots more help than expected — to get a design up and running? Do you have all technical info at your fingertips so you can quickly supply the answers? Do you know how long it will really take to get samples?

These are the kinds of questions and issues that will (or should) come up during the discussions between customer and supplier. Did I forget anything?

13 comments on “Demanding More From Analog Takes Work

  1. karenfield
    February 14, 2013

    Hi Brad: Agree with all that you're saying, but wondering how much the potential ROI goes into support of a potential customer? The most common complaint I hear from design engineers is that they are not able to get applications support when their project is perceived as too small to pay off for the vendor. Just curious–in your experience as an app engineer–whether you had some sort of criteria for judging just how much time you'd invest in a particular customer. 

  2. eafpres
    February 14, 2013

    I have been on both sides of this.  In a components business, we went through a process that shifted all small customers to distributors.  Selection criteria for the distribution partners included their technical competence, but we had a lot of lines and the depth varied with the disty and product line.  On the other side, in another instance we were using a wireless chipset; the OEM would not support us directly due to volumes < 500k/year.

  3. Brad Albing
    February 14, 2013

    When I was an FAE, yes, I certainly spent less time w/ customers who were only (likely) going to buy 1k-pieces of a $1 op-amp. And some customers in that situation might be annoyed that they were not getting better customer support. But these are the realities of operating a business. We try to service customers as needed, but the folks buying lots of high-margin parts are going to get better service. No strict mathmatical analysis was done to decide on the amount of time that would be spent per customer – we just used our own best judgement on a case-by-case basis.

  4. Brad Albing
    February 14, 2013

    At volumes of < 500k-units/year of a wireles chipset device, unless it was substantially less than 500k/year (like 495k less), that's terrible customer service.

    Sometimes, for the very low volumes of the inexpensive devices, an arrangement can be set up for the distributor to provide some level of technical support.

  5. Kerry Lacanette
    February 16, 2013

    My suggestion: If your IC vendor won't provide applications support for their products, find a vendor who will. That applies regardless of your annual volumes. Don't expect the vendor to design your whole system for you. But if a chip isn't working the way you expect it to, or if you need some advice on how to get the best performance from a component, or if you need a quick schematic review, talk to your FAE or the factory applications group. If they don't know the answers, they should be able to get you to someone from the product group who does.

     

    In the semiconductor companies I've worked for, the direction to the applications teams has always been to help our customers succeed when using our products.  The individual applications engineers' reviews are affected by the help they provide, and by customer feedback, regardless of the size of the customer.

     

    Smart companies know that applications support for small customers isn't altruistic behavior. It's good business. Small customers often become big customers. Even when they don't, engineers at small companies often move to bigger companies. When they trust a vendor to provide good applications support when needed, they take that trust with them when they change employers.

     

    So expect applications support, and tell your vendors how they're doing.

  6. Bill_Jaffa
    February 18, 2013

    Pretty much all of the top- and mid-tier analog vendors offer lots of notes and back-up collateral such as reference designs–just make sure they have actually been built and tested! I'd say you should assume, at first, that's all you'll get for support–unless you are a major customer. Start with those–because if you do have a problem, as least you have a frame of refrecen to begin the “I need help” discussion. But if you are doing a unique design, circuit, or layout, it will be tough to get help, even of the vendor wants to provide it.

  7. RedDerek
    February 20, 2013

    When I was an app engineer, I found the small companies had the most interesting problems to solve. I may have poor ROI for their volume, but it allowed me to find that extra creative bug to expand and help others even more. It allows an app engineer to write that extra app note that others may read and use the product in more creative ways. Thus increasing volume even more.

    For the small customer that keeps having a problem, I would support them just as equally. As an engineer, we should live for problems. For without them we would not have a job / purpose. I had one customer that would call about once every 2 to 3 weeks with a failed part. I would ask for it to be returned and we would analyze it to find the classic EOS failure (Electric Over Stress). Which meant nothing to me. But I pushed more for the application and soon figured out a postential problem. I went to our product engineer and asked for some additional screening beyond the specification sheet test parameters. What soon came about is that there was not enough margin between the part and the data sheet. The part went back to design and they soon found a mistake in the mask set. This was quickly resolved. New parts sent out. And the customer never came back with problems.

    So, even the small customer can help identify a potential problem that can help all others. I believe the ROI I initially did was very poor. But it ended up being very key to the product line life.

    Recently I had a problem with a large manufacturer's part. It seemed to be an oddity of performance that I still believe is a flaw. However, after numerous attempts and even posting on their support board, I never got a response. On several calls and posts, I offered to send a board that exhibited the problem consistently, even newer parts obtained showed the problem. Because the problem never got resolved, I ended up using a different manufacturer's part. From now on, if I need a similar part I will know where not to go to first. This will have a future effect on my part selection, even when I do future designs where large volume potentials exist. A shame that app engineers today do not see the value of even these small quirks.

  8. kvasan
    February 27, 2013

    In my opinion, “large volume customers give more ROI” is not true in all cases. This big guy could change loyalties just like that.

    Small volume customers are the ones who talk good about your product and give you references. They work on your component more intensively than the big guy. They talk to their peers on how well this component suited their applications and why it should be used for the peers' projects. THEY do the marketing for you.

    Also, as RedDerek aptly put, the variety of field data you get from such varied applications enable you to make your product robust.

    Small Volumes X Many such Customers > Large Volumes X Less number of customers.

  9. Brad Albing
    February 27, 2013

    This is the point of which I tried to convince other folks years ago. You often don't know how some good business leads may develop.

  10. Jason Bowden
    February 28, 2013

    I always say, never assume in the beginning the potential of a customer.  I see many people all the time jumping over buckets of quarters just to grab a dollar that is being share with 50 other people.

  11. jkvasan
    April 23, 2013

    Brad,

    I remember introducing a small firm owner to several Field App Engrs (FAE) I know. This small firm owner – we could call him as Design Engr (DE) – was talking about an exciting product used for some solar applications and his volume at that point was very very low. All except one FAE gave up on him. This FAE persistently supported him though his chip was costlier than the others in small quantities.

    After the design was complete, its performance was found to be excellent by the prospective clients. Overnight the DE bagged an order for 2500 units. As on date this DE is a very successful business man and has refused to change to any other chip other than the one he is using, just to support the FAE.

  12. Brad Albing
    April 30, 2013

    Sometimes it does pay to pursue the small clients. You just don't know if it will pay off….

  13. Davidled
    May 25, 2013

    Application/design engineer from IC vendor might have a contract with customer for a specific project in condition of NDA agreement.  In the business perspective, any agreement is possible, regardless of customer volume size. IC vendor might look at not only the volume, but also potential profit margin in the future.

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