View from the top: Technology democratisation brings new approach to design

4 min read

<b>Glenn Jarrett, Global Head of Product Marketing at RS Components talks about the industry trends and technologies that are enabling a new approach to the creation of product concepts.</b>

The entrance fee is now lower than ever to gain the knowledge, tools and technologies that in many cases were previously out of reach for the majority of engineers. More than this, the same also applies for electronics and mechanical engineering enthusiasts or students at universities and schools. For example, increasingly rich engineering content is becoming readily available online and made even more accessible with the proliferation of personal and affordable smartphones and tablets in conjunction with ever higher levels of bandwidth for mobile data. In addition to which, engineers and developers are becoming more and more involved in online communities and forums to seek advice and share ideas in more collaborative processes for design. New approach Enabled by this increasing access to new technologies, the industry is undergoing a transformation in the product design flow. We are now seeing an acceleration of the development phase within the early stages of product conception. The evolution of this new 'rapid concept and prototyping' approach can bring many advantages for companies: it delivers the ability to rapidly react to market demands, reducing time-to-market; it encourages innovation at all levels with the empowerment of engineers across entire departments; and it allows the building of a base of experience, even if a potential product concept does not actually come to fruition. However, it will only work if engineers are empowered to be a part of the concept development process. And certainly this has been difficult to realise in the past. But there are three key trends or enablers that are making it possible, while also changing the profile of the industry. Open source The first of these trends is the open source movement. The free and open source software movement is now well established with major OEMs at all levels across our industry. They are not just accommodating it, but building solutions based upon it and moving it forwards. The drive for open source hardware is also growing fast, and while it is still the early days in this endeavour, it is being accelerated with the availability of hardware-proven reference designs and software stacks from semiconductor vendors and others as one example among many. These template technologies are enabling engineers to quickly try out designs and concepts, which is a rather more advanced position to be in than having nothing beyond that idea sketched out on the back of the napkin. The Arduino platform and ecosystem is perhaps the leading enabling force in the open source hardware movement: hardware design files are freely available, enabling developers to extend these to meet their own objectives. And it is not only Arduino. For example, new industrial computing solutions and many new applications for the Internet-of-Things are being created on relatively low-cost building blocks such as the Raspberry Pi platform. Design tools A second key trend is the growing availability of free design software; and here RS is a leader. In 2010, the company launched DesignSpark PCB, an entirely free, powerful and easy-to-use PCB design tool that has no restrictions and no annual licence fee. Removing the bottleneck of having to use specialist PCB layout engineers (who typically might have used premium PCB software), the DesignSpark PCB software allows all engineers to rapidly design new electronics based concepts. In fact, many manufacturers are now choosing to employ the tool as the software to promote their reference designs to the widest possible audience. In addition to which, just over 12 months ago, RS moved in the 3D mechanical design arena with DesignSpark Mechanical. Based on direct modelling techniques, this downloadable free tool has allowed more engineers to use a powerful 3D design tool that has enabled them to quickly create mechanical concepts and designs. These DesignSpark software tools are central to our pledge to engineers to provide them with the tools they need to rapidly develop concepts and prototypes and get their products out within a short time-to-market. And this promise is being manifested in the sustained commitment to these tools. For example, DesignSpark PCB is now in its 7th version and, this month, we are launching the second version of DesignSpark Mechanical, largely based on requests from its now sizeable user base. The new version of DesignSpark Mechanical offers a new and simplified user interface with built-in help text and Quick Guide tutorials, example designs, as well as making the tool's BOM-quote functionality even easier to use. Importantly, the tool also significantly extends the capabilities of the first version with the optional integration of new premium modules that provide engineers with the ability to build a seamless concept-to-production workflow. Accepting of course that this level of functionality offered by the premium modules may be beyond what is required, as the fundamental capabilities of version 2.0 will be more than enough for many, if not most, engineers. In addition, the tool provides access to a 3D library comprising tens of thousands of 3D models from leading component manufacturers, as well as the integration of all the necessary RS purchasing data for fast BOM creation. Crucially, DesignSpark Mechanical's STL-output format also enables the direct export of designs to 3D printers, which leads nicely into the third trend. Printing and prototyping 3D printers are greatly facilitating increasingly cost-effective access to rapid prototyping and the physical realisation of mechanical design concepts. These 3D prototyping machines are becoming more and more affordable with plastic-material-based printers now available at similar prices to higher-end '2D' laser printers, such as the Ormerod 2, the latest 3D printer from RepRapPro, as one example among many. As well as 3D printing, an additional prototyping resource is the growing range of PCB board manufacturers that can deliver prototype boards in a matter of days and at relatively low cost. Overall, the 'Rapid Concept and Prototyping' approach can mean that up-front requirements and even an end goal can be significantly less strict. 'Must-have' functionality can be identified at a high level, while allowing entire engineering departments to be involved in brainstorming to create many concepts, which can be quickly and easily created digitally and developed in parallel with the strongest concepts progressed and the weakest quickly abandoned in an evolutionary and iterative process. Physical prototypes can be produced, quickly followed by customer and market testing with a small number of prototypes taken on through the full design process. Democratisation In summary, increased design resources from hardware suppliers, open-source platforms and IP, the availability of free-to-download PCB-design and 3D-modelling tools, extensive libraries of 3D models, and finally easy access to rapid prototyping capabilities such as the use of 3D printers, have all combined to enable a new agile and flexible approach to product development. RS is committed to furthering this democratisation of technology with the delivery of advanced products, tools and design resources, and thereby enabling more and more innovation in industrial companies of all shapes and sizes and empowering engineers to realise concept-to-creation of products in a substantially faster time. DesignSpark PCB and DesignSpark Mechanical are available for free download and support via the DesignSpark community at: