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Demo Boards a Necessary Evil?

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.

References

  1. Monkey shooting AK-47 Between Soldiers in Africa!!!” YouTube video
  2. Evaluation Kits and Demo Boards” Allegro Microsystems web page

8 comments on “Demo Boards a Necessary Evil?

  1. GSKrasle
    June 21, 2017

    My experience:

    'Uh, hello: I'm working on a design and would like to get some sample parts…'

    'Sure: where do you work?'

    'UnheardOfNotFamous'

    'Well, you can order them online for $20 and delivery in 8-12 weeks. 'Nice speaking with you.'

     

    'Uh, hello: I'm working on a design and would like to get some sample parts…'

    'Sure: where do you work?'

    'BigFamousCompany'

    'Well, I'll have three applications engineers there to meet with you tomorrow with a complete product portfolio! 'Pick you up for dinner at the Ritz at 7:00. By the way, I'll need your direct line and birthdays for all your family and a list of your favourite bands… I'll call tomorrow [and the next, the next, the next…] to see how you're doing.'

     

    It got so annoying, we made-up a fake company name and used the street address of an outlying unmarked building for sample deliveries.

     

  2. antedeluvian
    June 22, 2017

    Typically I don't mind paying for demo boards/samples because I don't have to justify myself to the representative, lie about volume and get nagged every 3 days as to when the order is going to materialise. Better still is to hide behind the semi-anonimity of Digikey or Mouser. I imagine this is harder if your are self-employed…

    However lately it seems to me that i am so far behind the curve that when I want a demo board, it is obsolete.

    I have received demo boards at shows like ESC and then when I get to fire them up, the files and other relevant details have disappeared, mostly as a result of a corporate takeovers.

  3. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    June 27, 2017

    I'm thinking of a blog on mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts.  Actually it could be several blogs with one on the recent history and another on the effects of it on both employees and customers.  Feedback welcome.

  4. Effective-Technical-Writing dot com
    June 27, 2017

    I've seen this game played too.  I try to be honest.  In this case, it was a small market; every internal combustion engine made.

  5. RobTheNob
    June 28, 2017

    I also remember when we got good quality data books. It's DIY download these days.

    I don't mind paying for a demo board that is a) going to save me a lot of time, b) is sensibly priced. I have bought what I consider to be excellent value boards, and even built them in to final product.  If I am looking at something relatively simple I will patch together a bread board in the time honoured way. If needs be I will do a Rev1 version of the final PCB (or part thereof) and buy a little layout time down the line. Let's face it how often do you get the final product without a respin?

    Demo boards were a rarity at one time and there was no choice but to roll your own. The demise of through hole parts has made patch board construction more difficult but you can usually get  converters or, if you are feeling really nasty, just tack straight on to the IC pins.

  6. RobTheNob
    June 28, 2017

    Ha ha, some things never change. I can remember 30 years ago promising reps that we would use at least 1,000 parts / month (pretty good numbers for the sector) and yes, it was a high profile project, expect press releases. I was shameless, I had to be..

  7. Victor Lorenzo
    June 30, 2017

    I remember paying more than 400€ for one Altera Cyclone development kit and more than 150€ for one ARM7TDMI demonstration board. The ARM demo board was really big, over 20x20cm, with so many pins that it looked like a Fakir's bead.

    After using them for a few test runs and evaluation they all ended in a forgotten box, or who knows where.

    But currently I find very convenient the Kinetis Freedom development boards. At a price below 20€, and supporting CPUs running at 120MHz (like the Freedom K22) I use them for fast prototyping, probe of concepts, custom tools and custom instruments… or just to play and learn new “tricks” and test new components.

  8. Victor Lorenzo
    June 30, 2017

    I needed once to design the DC/DC converter for powering the OLED display in one product. One usual provider visited me with the representative of one company that was “specialized in power conversion components”. They sent a few samples of, what at their opinion, and according to the datasheet, was the right DC/DC for the application. All smoked. Oupss!! Well, I was contacted by one FAE from the company, he suggested that maybe, perhaps, ehemm, probably, there could be the possibility that I was making some kind of mistake in the design…I agreed that it was possible, indeed it was my personal feeling, and they sent me their “sample evaluation kit” with a confidencial App Note. Nicer and fancier board, same schematic as the one I was using but with more test points, same values…. same results, same smoke colour   ;).

    Great “demonstration”! They had one bug in that precise silicon revision.

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