Analog Angle Blog

Do new technologies ease small-scale product innovation?

The two extremes of product volume have their own attributes. If you're designing and building a higher-volume product, you can justify manufacturing tooling and test fixtures (whether at your facility or a contract assembly house). At the other end of the volume spectrum, if you are only producing a few units/month, or doing semi-custom or full-custom work, you usually have to do many aspects of the build using “hand-made” techniques.

But what about those projects which run low-to-moderate volume, on the order of around 10-50 units/month? They are often caught in the small-scale, in-between zone: too few to afford serious tooling and fixturing, too many to build by hand.

I thought about this when I saw a leading-edge oscilloscope from Agilent, “Real-time scope punches to 63-GHz true analog bandwidth, on two channels,” which is certainly not going to have volume runs comparable to a smartphone. The Agilent team showed me part of the analog front-end circuitry and assembly, which includes ICs mounted on a custom-milled waveguide sub-assembly (see photo).

While this is clearly a sophisticated sub-assembly, basic milling is generally no longer as costly or difficult as it once was. The combination of PC-based CAD (computer-aided design), FEA (finite element analysis), CAM (computer-aided manufacturing), and CNC (computer numerical controlled) machining centers makes it easier to design, set up, and make such components.

It's not just machining which has changed radically. Using a variety of high-end plastics, sintered powdered metal, and other materials, and also set up by CAD/CAM software, RP (rapid prototyping, also referred to as “3D printing” or “additive manufacturing”) lets you build both prototypes as well as modest production runs, with virtually no tooling cost or time lag. CFD (computational fluid dynamics) tools let you get a sense of your thermal situation, to see if you need a fan, heat sink, or lower-power components.

For the PC board, you can use modeling tools and software to prepare the layout, and then get a batch of boards made outside in 24-48 hours, or you can make them on-demand using a machine such as those from LPKF. Again, little or no tooling or set-up time is needed. [Yes, there's still the problem of loading the boards before getting them soldered; I wish there was a good way to do that except by hand, which is very tough but it can be done in many cases, or with a special set-up.]

Oh, you need parts? There are distributors who can ship prototype and modest volumes of components to you off-the-shelf, and you'll have them in 24 to 48 hours.

If you step back and look at the tools, tooling, components, and processes it takes to develop and produce a lower-volume product, these developments have changed things for the better. You can then market your product directly via the web, avoiding the need for a more-formal channel of distribution (if needed) until you get some customers and traction.

Does this mean we'll see more of those clever, small-scale innovative electronic and electromechanical products, coming from “garage” engineers? Will the up-front cost, time, and effort barriers of trying out an idea in the market be lowered? Or will the inherent marketing challenges and countless regulatory aspects counter and overwhelm the benefits of these advances?

What do you think? Will the lone innovator or lower-volume project team find things are better, about the same, or not as good as they could be? ?

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