The Most Important Thing

Actually, there are other things that may very well be more important. Oxygen and food certainly are. Roads are pretty important as well. Life would be difficult without them. But, for a job, a career, an  100px-Three_IC_circuit_chips Industry, I can't think of much that is more important than the very last sentence of the linked article here.

It's not difficult to find literature discussing the challenges facing the technology industry this country. There's always talk of the burdensome regulatory climate, unequal labor costs, government subsidies, dumping and on and on. But, what if we didn't focus on what's making things difficult for us? What if we, rather, focus on what we can do to make things better? Again, look at that last sentence (read the rest of the article too) and think about it.

Duane Benson
Zero - Ye ha, 500 blog posts!
(Is that a lot?)

Outsourced Out of a Future?

Alert! - Self-serving Content Ahead: I suppose I'm supposed to be self-serving now and then. I mean, I don't personally design and build things for a living. I do that for fun and dim hopes of robot world domination. These days, I tell people about things for a living so that makes it my job to be mostly self-serving ("self" being defined as "my company"). But self-serving isn't always bad. I couldn't get gas for my car here in Oregon without being self-serving. I could get hamburgers though, so I'll have to conclude that it's a 50-50 proposition.

We understand outsourcing here at Screaming Circuits. That's what we do - take people's outsourced prototype and short-run production assembly work. Being located in Canby Oregon, USA, we see both sides of the outsourcing discussion. As I said, on the one hand, we do assembly for other people. On the other hand, being a North American manufacturing company, we've seen a lot of work go offshore. Not that I'm against things not in the U.S. - I firmly believe that most of this country's success is due to the fact that we're from here, there and all over the world. But, I do want to have a job and I want my friends and family to have a job. We have to be worth something in this country and the rampant pace of off-shoring sometimes makes me wonder if we're just all deluding ourselves in that regard.

The prompt for this post is this article in the Los Angeles Times about Boeing's outsourcing in the 787 Dreamliner program. The quick summary of the article is to speculate that Boeing went way too far in their outsourcing and have put at risk not only the financial success of the program, but also the company's future engineering prowess.

Now, here's the self-serving part. The article outlines how they went wrong by over-outsourcing, but it also points to the value of specialty companies like Screaming Circuits:

"That's not to say that outsourcing never makes sense — it's a good way to make use of the precision skills of specialty manufacturers, which would be costly to duplicate." [from the above linked LA Time article]

That's us. We specialize in prototypes and small volumes. We specialize in new and difficult component package sizes. We see such a variety of different types of designs here in our shop that we get good at things like QFNs and Micro BGAs sooner than anyone else. (Hyperbole, perhaps, but I do believe it none the less). We've built things that go under water, up into space and everywhere in between. We don't specialize in one or a few specific vertical markets, like medical or consumer, we specialize in the prototype phase of the development program across virtually all market categories.

So, outsourcing: I'm in favor of intelligent outsourcing. My advice to you: Outsource where it make sense. Don't outsource where it doesn't. Look at the true cost of such decisions, not just the surface image. Keep some value add in your company and don't just become a marketing shell.

Duane Benson
Time to make my oatmeal.

Hello... Any Good Part Shipping Ideas?

Ever have one of those situations where there really aren't any good answers? There may be right answers, but not necessarily any that fit real well to the specific situation or are all that convenient. The question at hand relates to packaging and shipping small quantities of big ICs to your prototype house.

If you buy them in small quantities, go ahead and use that packaging to ship to Screaming Circuits. That's not a problem. The problem (and this question) comes in when you need to purchase a bunch of them but only need to use a few at a time. This is primarily an issue for parts that come in trays.

Let's say you have a 23 x 23mm BGA or QFP that came in a tray with 60 parts. You need to ship five of the parts for an assembly order at Screaming Circuits. We tell you not to ship them loose. You don't want to risk in-transit loss or damage to all 60 parts by shipping the full tray. What do you do?

For leadless parts like BGAs, LGAs and QFNs, you can VERY carefully pack each one in a small individual anti-static bag and then wrap them in bubble wrap. Make sure you don't damage any of the solder balls. You can't do that with leaded parts like QFPs. Don't do it. Bent leads don't solder well. And, don't put more than one BGA in an antic-static bag. Missing solder balls won't solder either.

For all types of chips, you can find someone that sells JEDEC Matrix IC Trays and see if they have any that meet your size and capacity requirements. or are good places to start. That won't help much if it's Tuesday, noon and you need to make a shipping deadline of 3:00pm. But it will likely help for future projects. The other problem with this approach is that without the proper tools, it may be very difficult to get the parts out of one tray and into the other without bending a few pins.

The best option may very well be to just send in the full tray and have us send them back after we've assembled for that job. If you do choose to send in your full tray, we will treat all of the parts with care, bake if needed, properly reseal and pack them for the return trip to you.

Duane Benson

Et Tu Embedded Passives

I don't know if or when embedded passives will become the "next big thing" in PCB design, but they are on the way. We, at Screaming Circuits, have been asked about the use of embedded passives a few times.

Embedded passives
The purported advantages of the technology lie primarily in the ares of cost reduction and space reduction. You could potentially get your bypass caps much closer to where they need to be as well. The space parameter is pretty obviously an advantage, but the jury is still out on costs. I suspect that at this moment, it's pretty difficult to find a board house that can fabricate a PCB with embedded passives.

If you're not familiar with the concept, capacitors or resistors are built up on the inner copper layers of the substrate. There are a couple different methods used such as plating, printing or thin-film. As shown in the illustration, the resistors and capacitors inside the PCB negate the need to mount them on the outside. I can see rework being a problem if any of those embedded parts has issues.

In terms of assembly, we wouldn't treat such a board any different than any other PCB. If your fab house notes that there are temperature or any other restrictions, let your assembly house know. Beyond that, all the standard rules apply.

Duane Benson
Note from Forbin: Colossus is watching

I'm a capitalist and I'm okay...

I'm a capitalist and I'm okay
I work all night and I sleep all day

300px-LaunchPad_wireframe Well, I don't work all night so much anymore. I used to.  I am a capitalist though. I think money is good (what some people do with it, not so much). And, I also think that when people make money, they should do so in such a way that others benefit as well. That's one of the reasons I like Ti's Beagleboard so much. Speaking of Ti, they have another microcontroller product that I'm excited about as well.

The MSP430 LaunchPad is a little development board designed for education in general as well as familiarization with the MSP430 line of microcontrollers for experienced developers. (I hope they don't mind that I'm using their picture on the right here. I don't have one so I couldn't take my own picture of it.)

A lot of companies have development boards for their chips. That's nothing new. But what is really cool is that they have set a retail price for this of $4.30. Yes, the price of a 16 ounce latte.

Now I know that a latte is important. Some people have speculated that civilization would collapse without caffeine. But, here's what you get in the place of that latte: (from the Ti website, again)

"For $4.30, the LaunchPad includes a development board, 2 programmable MSP430 microcontrollers, mini-USB cable, PCB connectors for expandability, external crystal for increased clock accuracy, and free & downloadable software integrated development environments (IDEs)"

Cool. I can explode one and still have another to finish the project with. I'm going to get me one of these and spend some time with it. I don't have any personal experience with the MSPP430 line, so it will be filling it's primary mission.

On the subject, I ran across an interesting website dedicated to the MSP430: If you're already a 430er or are just intrigued by the chip, go check it out.

Duane Benson
Buttered scones, anyone?

Need a Reference for the Reference

Not long ago, I wrote a short post about non-standard use of reference designators. After doing that, I've been looking at some of my own microcontroller and motor driver boards with an eye for how close to standards I am.

All of the R's, C's, D's and U's are okay, but there are some differences. For example, the Eagle library I've been using calls crystals "X" instead of the more standard "Y." I have seen crystals designated as "X", "Y" and "Q." LEDs seem to go by "LED" instead of "D" as indicated in the Wikipedia list. Headers go by "J", "JP", or "H." Wikipedia says "J" is for a female jack connector, "JP" is for jumper, and it doesn't list a "H." My board has break away two-row male headers and keyed single-row male headers. Wikipedia does note that its list is a set of commonly used designators. Not necessarily standard.

We probably do have the specific standards document laying around here someplace, and if I were doing real work on a professional basis, I'd hunt it down and make sure I followed the actual standards. But I'm not doing real work with my controllers and drivers, so I just do the best I can. I wonder how often that happens everywhere. The standards books are "somewhere" but no one really knows where.

Duane Benson
Somwhere over the reflow...

Electronics Shelf Life

Do parts and PCBs have a shelf life? Well, yes and no. I have some 7400 series logic chips in DIP form 7400 TH that I bought back in 1980. Every now and then, I pull one out and put it into a proto board to test some circuit idea I've got. They still work thirty years later. I haven't taken any special care in storage either. Some are stuck into anti-static foam. Some are not. All are sitting in a mini-parts bin without any moisture protection. I guess they do get a little shielding from light, but basically, they're just hanging out. They've been, at various times, in the attic, in the basement, in the garage or in the house.

That may seem like good evidence refuting a shelf like for parts. And today's parts are even more robustly Bent pins in strip designed to start with. Still though, if I use any of those parts, it's generally in a proto board or a socket. Sometimes I have to straighten the leads a bit. A lot of things don't matter so much at low temperatures, low speeds, low volumes and large geometries.

It's different when you have fine pitch parts being picked up and placed by a robot and then run through a 10 stage reflow oven. Oxidation that doesn't matter for a socketed prototype can interfere with the solder adhesion. Bent pins or missing BGA balls can prevent the part from fitting. Moisture absorbed over time can make the chip act like a pop corn kernel when in the reflow oven.

That's not to say that you can't use old parts for a prototype these days. Just give them a good inspection before sending them off for assembly. And, if they're moisture sensitive parts or have been stored in high-humidity areas, consider having your assembly house bake them before assembly. The same goes for raw PCBs too. Overly moist PCBs can delaminate during reflow. Some PCB finishes such as immersion sliver and OSP can tarnish or degrade over time too.

Duane Benson
Archaeologists, we are not

Modularity and Standards

Eons ago, (well, it seems like eons) when IBM designed its original PC, it took note of the success of the Apple II with it's modular expansion system - easily accessible card slots with loads of clear documentation - and added its own variety of modular expansion system. By doing so, the cost of accessories to consumers stayed low, the cost of installing or replacing said accessories stayed low and a whole new industry emerged to create compatible accessories.

Apple II I just read a Twitter Tweet ("Tweet" sounds too cutesy to me, so I'm never quite sure what to call those; maybe a "Twoot"?) from Mike Buetow that linked to an article about the latest Toyota recall. It seems that there are a couple of specific solder joints prone to cracking in the ECM (Engine Control Module) of certain models.

The last time I had any real data on the cost to replace an ECM, it was on the order of $1,500. Just scanning around the Internet, I found numbers ranging from $1,000 to $2,000. I'm guessing (I am speaking from near complete ignorance) that maybe two or three hours of that are labor at $90/ hour. That's a lot of cost in the electronics as well as labor hours that can't be used for billable hours. With so much of new cars being electronic, this issue is only going to become more extreme.

So, why can't the auto industry take a cue from the PC industry. Create a standard, easily accessible, electrical bus with standard, easy to manipulate mechanical attributes. Even if they were just standard within each manufacturer, it would still be a big improvement.

Consider this scenario: Buy a Toyota mid-size-car ECM at the local auto parts store. Take it home, plug it into a USB port on your home computer. It auto-runs a link to a specific web site. Enter your car's VIN number and the site loads firmware that matches the ECM to your car. Take the ECM outside, open your hood, flip a few latches on the water-tight electronics box, pull the old one out and plug the new one in. There you go. Done.

Instead of what is pretty much a massively expensive dealer-only operation, you have half a dozen standard bus ECMs to choose from and about 15 minutes of work that's not much more difficult than installing a new printer on your PC. And, you'd have less expensive aftermarket options as well. And, a new industry would emerge to design and build those aftermarket options.

Duane Benson
Sadly, not in my lifetime, Batman...

Global Shifting

Friday morning, I walked my way to the office in a slight drizzle. It was overcast and cool in the morning, eventually warming to near August temperatures later in the day. We had a long, mild winter, a long, cool spring and it looks like we're having a very short, not terribly hot, summer. Yet, the statistics (probably) don't lie. Global warming seems to be very real everywhere but here. The peat bogs around Moscow are burning, giant ice islands are breaking off of Greenland, and it's like 900 degrees over on Venus. All that, yet still nice and mild here in Oregon.

I think the same kind of things may be happening in manufacturing. By some accounts, it's all doom and gloom for North American manufacturing. We seem to be losing all of our manufacturing to other continents. But, maybe we aren't losing all of our manufacturing. Maybe it's just a shift. The high volume, low-value add stuff is likely gone, but to me, it appears that there's a thriving manufacturing industry for low-volume high-tech items. And not just in the contract manufacturing area.

There seems to be a re-emergence of small companies that are performing their own assembly in house too. They outsource what makes sense to outsource and in-source what doesn't. Adafruit and Sparkfun are two examples. The Arduino folks (in Italy) are building locally-to-them too. The Beagleboard from big-player Texas Instruments, is built in North America. Screaming Circuits and other small-volume companies like us seem to be doing quite well these days. Is it possible that the North American manufacturing industry isn't dieing, but is just changing? That's what I think.

Duane Benson
"Comet due to explode the earth at 9:42 this evening. Details at 11:00"

Reminders and Stress

Yesterday, I wrote about how much faster we can get things done in the prototype world than we could back when many of us were starting our careers. I mentioned that the decrease in time from weeks to days needed to re-spin a board and get a new prototype run completed is a double edged sword, but I kind of only mentioned the benefits - time savings, cost savings, quicker time to revenue generation. I didn't mention the down-side.

I also didn't really elaborate on another benefit - higher quality product. Instead of shipping product with PCBs riddled with mod wire, it's fast and cheap to get new boards and new assembled prototypes built and tested. These additional test cycles allow for much more reliable product. It can even improve the quality of firmware - shorter time to get a working prototype built means more time to write and test software/firmware. It's all good.

So, what is that second sword edge that I refer to?

RCA12ax7_sq_arms_smoke Stress. Yes. Stress. Back in the days before email and electronic projectors and speedy prototypes, we could relax more. A color presentation generally had to be sent out to have color transparencies or 35mm slides made up. If the boss wanted changes, they had to be made a week or so ahead of time. Now, with electronic projectors, changes can (and are too often) made at 2:00am the morning before the big presentation.

Since I can build you a prototype in a day or so, now those marketing geeks can, and do, throw changes in just a few days before release to production. Everything has to get done faster and faster. I want it now! We enable faster turns so the expectations increase and then we enable even faster turns and the expectation increase that much more. It never stops.

Duane Benson
Sorry. Sort of...