Selecting an Embedded Board:
7 Fatal Mistakes
Selecting an embedded board partner is one of the most important decisions made during product design. One wrong decision can have significant cost overruns, cause long delays in getting to market, and even worse, result in a mediocre product that creates headaches for years to come. Most decision makers utilize criteria that are solely focused on features and specifications, which are undoubtedly important. However, these limited considerations fail to capture the whole picture. This article aims to address additional important criteria that should factor into the selection process, which will help avoid the headaches and potential product disasters that can arise much later in the product cycle.
Mistake #1: Using a community board
Although Raspberry PI is the most popular of these boards, there are hundreds of community boards on the market. These boards are generally low cost and have community software support behind them, which make them very appealing.
However, there is no guarantee of availability beyond the immediate future, which can create sourcing nightmares. Consider the Intel Edison. Intel abruptly cancelled all production of the community Edison board three years after launching it. Many customers had designed it into their products, only to be forced to start from scratch after the cancellation. Other community boards, even the Raspberry PI, have no guaranteed availability and no product roadmap.
On top of availability, there is no insight into the supply chain and manufacturing of the boards. Do components change? Can they scale up if necessary? Will there be lead time issues at any point? There are many unknowns with this product strategy that can have significant financial and logistical consequences.
Mistake #2: Not verifying vendor support
Selecting an embedded board partner is like any other partnership - the most important element is communication. The primary reason a customer purchases an embedded board is because they don’t have the time or resources to design one from scratch. Both hardware and software support are required to help get the product design completed faster. Response time is critical. For customers based in North America or Europe that utilize an Asian partner, is localized support available? Or, at minimum, a highly responsive engineering team? If it takes 24-48 hours for every response, projects are inevitably delayed, which defeats the purpose of using an embedded board partner to begin with.
Understanding the types of in-house support that the vendor provides will offer important insight into what working with that vendor will look like in the future. For example, if the vendor outsources software, or certain aspects of the design or manufacturing process, it is important to have a full understanding of the communication channels.
Testing the vendor early on with clear technical questions is also a good idea. If there are delays in the beginning of the project in simply responding to technical inquiries, this might be a red flag. It is also beneficial to visit the company to see firsthand who the engineers are, as it is easy to feign competency through a website or marketing collateral.
Mistake #3: Failing to confirm the state of the software
Software is the number one roadblock when launching an embedded product. Without software, the board is just a fancy paperweight. What software options does the embedded board partner provide? Are these software options up to date with the latest releases in the general community, or are they 4-5 years old? The answers to these questions will provide significant insight.
For vendors that have no software, or very dated software, this shows that software is not a focus for them. They will most likely not be able to provide the necessary support, or do not have the internal expertise to answer critical support questions in the future. Working with vendors that do not maintain their software means that the customer must do all the heavy lifting in terms of security vulnerabilities and stability patches.
Mistake #4: Ignoring the importance of vendor experience
Too many customers neglect to ask one fundamental question: what types of projects have you successfully completed? When applying for a job, employers request references in addition to a resume. Yet when “hiring” an embedded board partner for a significant portion of product development, customers do not ask the same question.
A high-quality embedded board partner brings a wealth of experience to the project, including lessons learned from previous designs and best practices that have been developed over hundreds of successful designs. This is an invaluable asset that will improve quality and functionality, and reduce the risk of a major headache in the future. Contact references to validate previous experiences.
It’s also important to understand how much experience a vendor has with a particular family of processors. For example, NXP recently released their i.MX 8M and 8M Mini family of processors which offer best-in-class power efficiency and graphics processing. It takes years for embedded board vendors to truly understand how to maximize the benefits of a particular family of processors.
Determine how close the embedded board partner is to the provider of the processor and whether the embedded board vendor is selected as a launch or early success partner on new processors.
Boundary Devices helps you proactively avoid these mistakes:
#1 We provide custom boards tailored to your needs, with guaranteed 10-year life spans
#2 We offer 100% in-house technical support
#3 We ensure our software is fully optimized and only provide the most up-to-date versions
#4 We have over 15 years of proven, complex embedded computing experience and are a long-tenured NXP Proven Partner
#5 Our manufacturing processes are compliant with ISO 9001:2015 Standards
#6 Our custom design services work hand-in-hand with each customer to avoid unnecessary costs and delays
#7We always provide a proof of concept when beginning a new project
Mistake #5: Not understanding the manufacturing process
Understanding the manufacturing process of an embedded board will provide significant insight into potential problems that may arise in the future. Too many times companies consider the embedded board as a black box, without asking key questions about how the board is produced. Customers should understand the manufacturing process as if they were manufacturing the boards themselves. Here are some key questions to ask:
- Where are the components sourced from?
- Where is the board manufactured?
- What type of quality control is in place?
- What data is available and for how long?
The answers to these questions will provide insight into potential quality and lead time issues. Often, an embedded board will be designed into a product with a 12-week lead time, but due to the manufacturing process, the lead time will vary widely, up to 26 weeks. At that point, it’s too late for the customer to learn the manufacturing process, as the damage is done and product cannot be shipped on time. Or, on the quality side, what happens when customers begin to report quality issues on a batch of boards? Does the embedded board partner have traceability into that particular lot to perform corrective actions? These are important questions that can have significant long-term implications.
Mistake #6: Not providing a specification
Starting with a solid specification in mind is highly recommended before beginning to contact embedded board partners. Customers that know what they want in advance are more likely to design a high-quality product and receive a better price. In the specification, clearly delineate between must-have features and “nice-to-have” features. The embedded board partner can then help steer decisions based on experience.
A common mistake in assembling a specification document is trying to design everything that could ever be needed into the product. This overly complicates the design process, adds unnecessary costs to the project, and is one of the main reasons why projects get delayed. Draw a line in the sand and design for what is needed today, with the ability to expand in the future. Otherwise, future requirements bog down current requirements and delay projects.
Mistake #7: Forgetting the proof of concept
All customers should start with an evaluation unit from the embedded board partner. This allows the customer to test out key features of the product in advance, before making any formal commitment. By starting with an evaluation unit, the customer also has an opportunity to test out the supplier. How do they communicate? How responsive are they? If responses are non-existent during the evaluation process, this is a red flag. The proof of concept process forces all major stakeholders to weigh in and agree on the embedded strategy, which creates alignment and momentum in designing the final finished good.
There are many potentially devastating pitfalls in any product development cycle. The purpose of this article is to address some of the recurring trends that we see in the embedded board space. By deliberately addressing these potential roadblocks up-front, customers are better prepared to face potential production issues head-on, or never experience them at all. Contact us to learn more about our embedded boards and how Boundary Devices addresses these common roadblocks proactively.
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Boundary Devices is a leading supplier of i.MX-based SBCs and SOMs for the general embedded market. Headquartered in Lake Forest, CA, Boundary Devices is an ISO9001 certified NXP proven partner that has completed thousands of successful projects with the i.MX family of processors. Reach out today!