If you’re in a big company and dismiss this article as complaining, scroll down to the phrase from Steve Jobs for an egotistical lesson. Recently I needed an adjustable power supply for a concept I was testing. When I saw what they were going for on eBay I decided to see if there was a similar version in demonstration (demo) board form. Surely I would be able to get one for free as I had given out many during my career. Little did I know that demo boards had become an industry for profit more than it had become a way to introduce you to a manufacturer’s product in hopes that you will design it in.
My initial plan was to get a board off Digi-Key. A small power supply demo board was going for over $100. It may have had four bucks worth of parts on it at the most. Either someone was greedy about NRE investment costs or Digi-Key had a very proud markup on the price. My next plan was to contact the manufacturers directly so I emailed and called suppliers and connections in my network. One application engineer got back to me however, I never heard from him again. Thankfully one contact responded and sent me two versions of a demo board that contained a discontinued part.
Discontinued part meant there was no internet information available on the demo board. A CD came with the part however the DVD drive was the first thing that had failed on my “made in China” computer. So it was off to the library to download the pdf to a USB drive and then on to my computer. So much for home delivery in this era of bypassing brick and mortar for high Amazon delivery expectations. The next thing you know, we’ll have to get up and walk to the TV in order to change the channel…..if they even put those buttons on their products anymore.
The remainder of the responses were something to the effect of “you can order them off the internet” or “contact our sales prevention force”. Sales prevention force is a Kevinisim from an industry friend who sees the Dilbert side of life. He also coined the phrase “monkeys with machine guns” about clueless management. Unfortunately, this scenario rang true. It’s hard to tell which was uglier, management’s hair brained left turns on logical business (Iridium) or the bailing of guerrillas as the monkey squeezed off on the trigger. Regardless, I was treated with a “be gone” attitude as I reeked of Fred in the Shed, being a nobody, and the potential for low volume (as in every motor vehicle made). Here’s where it turns ugly.
Once upon a time, power supplies were a discrete assembly of leaded parts that could be sampled individually. Nowadays, the control ICs are multifunction devices with integrated power devices and surface mount packages. Even when provided separately, the devices that do use accessible surface mount leads, have leads so small and close together that you can’t even get to the leads with a probe so good luck soldering them to a breadboard. From there, it’s a quagmire of Enable, Sleep, and other function pins each of which must have their own voltage applied or at the very least be grounded directly or through a resistor. If you’re lucky, the pins can float and the IC will function.
If you’re even luckier, the IC has its own regulator to supply the toggle voltages or the input voltage level is acceptable to these inputs. Even then the resistors are so small today that I have to stick them on a piece of tape that I adhere to my catch basin for wire, parts, etc. If you leave these components free on the work surface, one sneeze or jockeying of the circuit will send them to the floor never to be found again. Creating your own working board is almost a lost art these days. In other words, you are at the mercy of a demo board if you have any hope of getting this device to function. Big industry holds the cards and they’re having a tough time seeing through the “success stogie” cigar smoke.
The problem is, demo boards are becoming an industry themselves. In addition, they are given to engineers at big companies with huge budgets while they charge Fred in the shed who doesn’t have the same industry momentum. For those of us reinvesting every dime back into our business, several hundred bucks for a demo board is big cash. Often times these boards sit and collect dust at a big company. This denial once happened to a disheveled looking engineer named Steve Jobs who walked into an Intel sales office in the big bad Silicon Valley. He was given the brush off so he went over to the Motorola sales office where he was provided a demo board. For years after that, a little company named Apple Computer used Motorola microprocessors while Intel begged Jobs for a chance. It was only when Motorola messed up the business
- as they did with automotive microprocessors
- as they did with GPS
- as they did with hybrid power modules….
- ….. I could go on and on with the sales prevention force however I won’t
…that Jobs finally started buying Intel processors.
Intel still continues this practice today with their Developer Forum. The same people that pay to watch commercials on cable TV pay Intel big bucks to use their parts. In this week-long boondoggle of meals on the company and $250 per night Silicon Valley hotel rooms, engineers go to a series of PowerPoint presentations teaching them how to use the latest Intel product. I just don’t get it myself. Comp me a demo board, a few videos or pdf files on how to use it, and let me create. Don’t be a Bogart (person who doesn’t share). And please don’t fetch an Uzi until you waste another week in company training at a high class resort. Companies can and will survive giving away demo boards to customers versus rewarding themselves on boondoggles. Leveraging customers with demo boards as a necessary evil will only alienate them. Gotta go heat up the soldering iron and blow off shaving for a disheveled existence. Thanks for tuning in.
- “Monkey shooting AK-47 Between Soldiers in Africa!!!” YouTube video
- “Evaluation Kits and Demo Boards” Allegro Microsystems web page