Electronics Design & Development Process

- a summary guide or tutorial about the electronics design process, the chief elements, what they are and how to manage the process.

Electronics Development Process Includes

In most companies it is necessary to manage the electronics design process. The electronics design or development process should be managed in such a way that it is possible to control the process in an orderly fashion without reducing the creativity of the designers.

In many companies a set of procedures will be used to control the development process. Other companies are tending to move towards web-based definitions of the electronics development process.

Whatever method is adopted to display and disseminate the information about the electronics development process, there are a number of common activities within the overall process.

The electronics design process can be manipulated to suit the individual situation - the stated electronics development process should assist the overall workflow rather than hindering it. However certain activities that may be deemed superfluous may need to be incorporated to ensure that the end product is repeatable and also maintainable over the longer term.

Electronics development process major activities

There are many different activities within an electronics design process. Some of the major ones are captured below:

  • Project initiation:   This is one of the most crucial elements of the project. Getting the project set off in the right direction is particularly important. The project may either be requested and most likely defined by the customer, or it may be a "Private Venture" where the definition of the product will be undertaken internally to meet a particular market. Either way there are a number of steps that must be taken:

    • Capture requirements:   When undertaking any project it is necessary to define exactly what is required. Requirements can be captured from many sources: users; end customer; market assessment, etc...
    • Define high level product:   With most of the requirements in place (often requirements capture progresses for many months and some work must usually start before all the requirements work is complete), the high level product can be worked out. This will enable other processes to be undertaken.
    • Prove concept / feasibility study:   The high level concept of the product will highlight any areas of the design that may present a high risk. These can be "de-risked" by undertaking a concept proof or feasibility study. This may even involve undertaking some trial development to prove whether concept can work. Simulations are a major way of providing he required data as accurate simulations can be created using software tools.
    • Undertake costing:   At this stage it will be possible to undertake a reasonable estimate of the costs.
    • Refine requirements:   In the light of costings, concept proof and other inputs it may be necessary to refine the requirements.
    • Review:   A review is essential at the end of this initial stage of the electronics development process to ensure that all the required definitions, and authorisations are in place before moving on to the next stage. Moving on without ensuring that a sufficiently robust definition is in place can lead to major problems further along the electronics development process.
  • Electronics development phase:   The electronics design phase is the area where the main work is done on creating the product or equipment. It is likely that the project team will be at its maximum strength during this phase.

    A large number of activities occur during this phase of the project. Many of them need to be undertaken in parallel, so it is essential that the development team communicates to ensure that all activities proceed in a coordinated fashion, and not in a disparate manner where different activities diverge.

    • Hardware design:   This is often the chief focus of a development activity. It will start with the high level design, and then as the requirements are flowed down, it will split into modules or subsections. These can be addressed as individual projects. Again communication is key.

      Increasingly much greater levels of computer simulation are available these days, and many circuits can be fully simulated before any prototypes are built.
    • Software development:   Software forms an increasingly significant portion of projects. Typically it will be many times that of the hardware development. Like the hardware, it should start with the top level design, flowing down the requirements to smaller modules that can be addressed separately. It should follow an orderly structured development to ensure that all the modules operate together satisfactorily when there is a complete software build.
    • Mechanical design:   The mechanical design is an important element in the overall electronics design process. Not only is the mechanical box designed, but aspects such as any mechanical interfaces as well as heat flow and many other elements all need to be addressed. Typically 3D mechanical modelling is used.
    • CAD PCB layout :   The printed circuit board design is a major element of the electronics hardware development. As many of circuit performance features - especially with RF and fast digital circuits - the PCB design is of great importance. Signal integrity simulations may be carried out as part of this activity. The PCB design should be carried out in close liaison with the electronics hardware development. Normally PCB CAD packages are used.
    • Test / production equipment development:   When developing electronics equipment, it is necessary to develop a test and production strategy alongside. The development and purchase of the equipment needed can occur during the development stages.
    • Build prototypes:   Prototypes of the equipment will be built. Concurrent engineering practices used to shorten timescales would normally indicate that the production facility, and any fixtures are trialled at this stage.
    • Development testing:   It is necessary to undertake constant testing during the development phase to ensure that each module, software of hardware meets its specification.
    • Review:   Before moving on to the next stage of the electronics design process, it is necessary to ensure that this phase is complete to a satisfactory level to move on. The review prior to formal testing is normally called a Test Readiness Review, TRR.
  • Integration, Verification & Validation:   A major element of any electronics development process is the formal integration, verification and validation element of the overall process. The testing is normally undertaken to ensure that the item works, and it is validated against the requirements to ensure that it fulfils the purpose for which it was designed. This testing normally occurs towards the end of the overall electronics development process when the hardware and software have been integrated. However it will still be necessary to keep the development team in place to rectify any problems.

    Only once the IVV process has been completed can the product be launched into production. A complete review - a production readiness review should be undertaken before the product is launched into full production.

    For development programmes funded by a customer, the completion of the testing will also be a major milestone that will show that the electronics development has been satisfactorily completed. It is almost certainly a major payment milestone for the contract.
  • Production:   Once a production readiness review has been completed, the product can enter production. At this stage all the production and production test equipment and processes should have been trialled - during the development phase.
  • On-going maintenance:   Even when a product has entered production on-going design maintenance will be needed. Component obsolescence, design problems previously not noticed, minor enhancements and other issues will all need addressing. These activities must all be allowed for during the process.

By Ian Poole

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