Freedom CAD: Navigating the Unpredictable Design Marketplace
As COO of the design service bureau Freedom CAD, Scott Miller has a front-row seat to the challenges currently plaguing designers and the design community as a whole. He shared his view of the industry with me recently, offering insights on the importance of picking the right partners and customer relationships in an unforgiving and sometimes unpredictable design marketplace.
Barry Matties: First, for a little context, why don't you tell us a little bit about Freedom CAD.
Scott Miller: Freedom CAD is a premier design service company oriented toward printed circuit board design. Our services include engineering related to PCB design. So, electrical and mechanical engineering, PCB layout, as well as peripheral services like signal integrity, power integrity, and schematic integrity. We are also able to provide customers with a full turnkey solution through partnering relationships with contract manufacturers to take what I like to call getting from “CAD to the Lab.” By providing this turnkey service, we can get prototypes into the customers’ hands quickly and seamlessly for testing and debugging.
Matties: Being a service company, you obviously get a chance to see a lot of different design challenges or just challenges in general from a lot of different applications. What do you think is the greatest trend or challenge that you see in design today?
Miller: It's a combination of density and power. We're constantly being pushed to do things in tighter spaces with higher densities, higher pin counts and complex power requirements. There's a lot of influence that takes place because of those, whether it be signal integrity or power integrity. These are the things that push us technology-wise.
Matties: From a customer’s point of view, are they typically people that don't have design in-house, or is it a combination of people with design but not the capacity? What does that look like?
Miller: It’s all of the above. I kind of group it into three categories. We have customers that have no in-house capability. They are architects of technology and they outsource everything. They may have an engineer or two, but then they want people to execute on the high-level engineering. We also have customers that have in-house capabilities, but they staff to meet their average demand and when they get into peak demand, they have insufficient capacity. They look to augment that internal skillset with outside resources to satisfy that peak demand. Then the surge goes away, and the cost goes away.
Then we have customers that simply have reached the point where they don't have a skillset or knowledge of the technology. Rather than take on the risks of doing it wrong, they look outside to find people that know how to do it well. You'd be surprised. We've done some interesting things for companies that are very capable, but have come to us for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's the technology, or the signal speed at which they need to operate are outside of their experience. Sometimes, their internal processes are just too slow, or there are obstacles to getting things done, so they'll outsource to us.
Matties: There’s probably a large area of the market where the skill doesn't match up to where it needs to be.
Miller: Yes, we have industrial customers who have been doing business in a certain way. Think about this in terms of the water meter business. If you design water meters, now all of a sudden water meters have Bluetooth and digital connections, because they want their drivers to be able to drive by and capture their readings without getting out of the truck. So now, these guys who have been very capable at building mechanical or analog water meters are now pushed into digital and RF technology, which is outside of their expertise. That's just one example, which is happening a lot in the industrial market.
Matties: The question that comes to mind is, do they even know they don't have the skill? We live in these vacuums. Will people come in for a sanity check?
Miller: What I see on a regular basis is companies that say, “We see this competitor and they're doing this and we need to be able to do that.” Some of it is pushed by innovation and outside of their box, and some of it is people who are the innovators and they recognize that they don't have that new skillset.
Matties: Now for you, what is your sweet spot of the three categories? Which one fits the best?
Miller: Traditionally we've been tied to the companies that have internal capabilities and we augment their teams. We do that well because we pride ourselves on our communications and our skillsets. The differentiator is being seamless. If you can work with a company that has an internal team, and you can be as seamless as possible to them, they feel confident about working with you. In general, that tends to be the biggest market for us—companies where they used to have 10 designers and now they're down to two. Because they only have two, they're able to keep up with the average, everyday stuff, but when they get into the big programs they need to count on us.
That puts pressure on our business, because it's a sine wave of demand. The peak loads don't happen all the time. At Freedom CAD, we see scale as a really important part of our business strategy. We obviously want to hire the best designers we can.
Matties: You have to do that.
Miller: We want to compete at the highest level, but we also have been purposefully driving scale. That scale gives you the ability to take on more customers and more programs, so that those sine waves hopefully don't line up and you've got one customer at a peak when another customer is at a valley. If you're too small, you can get devastated by those valleys, particularly if they're extended.
Matties: You can get devastated by the peaks, too.
Miller: Right. You can be overwhelmed, and then you can lose a customer when you're not in a position to say yes when they ask.
Matties: It's a fine balancing act there for you.
Miller: It's a tough act.
Matties: How do you project this? How do you look forward?
Miller: I'd love to tell you that our customers are wonderful and they tell us everything [laughs]. I'll talk to a customer on Tuesday, and I'll say “Hey, anything in the pipeline?” “No, I don't have anything.” On Thursday, they're calling me saying, “Hey, do you have somebody available?” There's no visibility. There are some customers who will give you a horizon, and then it's a matter of “We're going to have this project that’s going to start in October.” Then October turns into February. You just constantly have to keep an ear to the ground and talk to your customers so you have some semblance of what's going on.
Matties: So when you look at the marketplace, what do you think the most important message is to a potential customer or the market in general?
Miller: Relative to our business, you don't get many “at-bats” anymore. If you miss a window, you miss a timing, or you miss a cost target, it's a very unforgiving marketplace. From my perspective, the key is to do your homework and pick the right partners and make sure that they're really good at what they do, because you can't afford for them not to be. I see a lot of companies that hem and haw and say, “Well, you guys are expensive and we don't want to pay it.” That's fine, but you're also going to run the risk of not knowing whether they’re going to be able to execute and get what you want. At the end of the process, did they deliver on what they said they were going to do? If they don't, that's an expensive mistake.
Matties: That goes to the next thought that I have. I often hear that designers might over-design just to cover their ass, and when you over-design that adds cost.
Miller: Yeah, and that's why we have a dialogue with our customers’ CAD managers or engineering managers, because as a service company we're working for our customer—they're giving us direction and we're responding to it. There's probably better control of scope creep when you're working within the company because their people are there and are under their watchful eye. When you're working remotely, like we do with many of our customers, there can be more churn because we're doing what the customer asks. And this is where we try to add value to our customers, by saying, “We're happy to do this; just make sure we're doing what you want as a company.” You can see these cycles of the perfect engineering, it never ends.
Matties: You have to say “done” at some point. When you have a customer, do you offer a design review service? Say someone designs this board internally and they just want that sanity check. They just send it over and say, “Hey, tell us what you think.”
Miller: We actually do, and we have some customers and some CMs that actually use that service. A key philosophy for us is we've invested in Valor as a tool to help us check our work, so when a designer completes a design it goes to our Valor QA department, which is independent of the designer. The designers have to do an audit themselves. Our designers use a quality checklist to go through their designs and make sure everything's done. The CAD tools will allow you to design in flaws or manufacturing defects. The high-performance CAD tools have DRC checks so that if something's not connected or fails to meet a design rule you can see that.
Matties: I'm thinking more of the definition of optimum design rather than the functional “it works.”
Miller: That is two different things. That's a little harder to do as an afterthought, because you really need to understand the design intent. From a design review standpoint, we do offer DFM analysis to customers where we'll bring in their data package, we'll run it through Valor, and we'll look at it for DFM issues. If they go to fabrication with this design, will it end up having some manufacturing problems?
Matties: Don't a lot of the manufacturers offer this as part of the front-end service anyway?
Miller: Some of them, yes. Some of what they're doing is really only looking at the board data as it pertains to their ability to manufacture it. We're also looking at some of the other documentation that goes along with the board data, like the manufacturing drawings, the pick-and-place drawings, all the information, that's part of the deliverables package we're also checking, not just that the Gerber file is right. We're looking at the entire documentation package.
We're focused on the board only, but as it pertains to the board and the board data that then gets propagated into the other manufacturing processes. To talk about the DFM or the design intent of a particular design, you really have to then go back to the original intent. What are you guys doing? What is the intent of this board? Where does it fit in the system? What are you looking for? We can go through and do a design review, and like I said, we've done a few of those, but that's a whole different animal than doing a DFM analysis, because you've really got to get into the best components for that particular solution. Some of those types of requests actually happen because of component obsolescence.
Matties: We do a lot of surveys of designers and one of the things that we’ve learned and is repeated time after time is exactly what you're talking about. The designers come in late in the process because system designers are including the circuit designers, then they have a small box that they have to fit this real estate functionality in that doesn't fit, and it's just an incredible challenge.
Miller: It is. That's a consistent observation in my mind. The layout portion of the design tends to be victimized by the time schedule. It's like, “OK, now we're ready for layout. Now we've got to get it done in the shortest amount of time because we've used all that runway in trying to get the electronic design perfect. Now we've got to try to figure out how to make the highway system work on the board.”
Matties: It's such a prevalent complaint. It seems unbelievable that we're not doing concurrent engineering with the designers.
Miller: This, again, goes back to the relationship you have with customers. We have a lot of customers that we work with in a concurrent engineering mode because we've earned the right and the opportunity to do that. They'll come to us and say “Hey, we have a schematic. It's 60–70% done. We're still working with marketing to figure it out, but we're behind schedule and we need to get this going.” So we'll probably start doing some of the library work or some of the floor-planning work around the main core component and the DDR. That's well-known, so we know that this chip and these devices are going to need to be connected. Let's get started on that. That high-density area oftentimes tends to drive the stack-ups. The mechanicals are roughly known at that point. Today, just to fit everything that needs to be put on boards is often a challenge. We very rarely have the luxury of a lot of real estate to work with. You're pushing things together just to try to make things fit.
Matties: That goes back to optimum design; you don't have room to throw on unneeded components.
Miller: Right, and we need to be aware of what new technologies are out there that are evolving, because there are different ways to solve problems. People can think traditionally, but we tell them to try to stay current with manufacturing technologies and board manufacturing changes and improvements, because this a core philosophy for us. Like buried capacitance, there are times when you just don't physically have enough space on the board. We have experience with those types of things. We integrate with Insulectro as a board materials provider to stay current with them on what new materials Isola is coming out with as options. For instance, Rogers has long lead times on their laminate materials, so we're making recommendations on alternate materials when we need to satisfy schedules and material technologies. Another example is a company called eSurface that we've been working with that does an additive process for board fabrication. Their process enables finer features, thinner lines and spaces and more consistency than the traditional PCB fabrication copper etching process can achieve. Those are some of the things that we're trying to stay current with technology and differentiate with so we're not just a connect-the-dots company.
Matties: My expectation is that when I come to you, I'm coming to a fountain of knowledge because of your visibility into so many different designs.
Miller: And markets.
Matties: I would think that it's a great advantage. You mentioned earlier about the cost, which some people think is expensive, but it seems to me that when you look at the cost vs. the value, it actually would be on par because of that knowledge. Maybe an advantage, even.
Miller: It comes down to the individual customers. I think that the majority of our customers would tell you that we're a very competitive company. That we're good value to them, because they get high quality and they get the work done consistently well. But all customers are different. Just like selling printed circuit boards, you can sell printed circuit boards on a price per square inch, and to some people it's way too much and other people are very happy. It all depends on the technology, value and service.
Matties: Some final thoughts. What advice would you give a potential customer or the industry about design?
Miller: If the question is related to the design community, it's really important to recognize that the world is evolving and what you did two years ago isn't going to get you where you need to be two years from now. The tools are changing, the technology's changing, and there's a huge push on trying to stay current with what's out there in the industry and what changes. At a higher level, I'm in meetings all the time with customers where they're wrestling with tradeoffs. It's the tradeoff of pushing the state of the art as far as their DFM rules, standards and what their CMs or their internal factories are willing to accept. Yet they're being pushed to differentiate their products in the marketplace and do things that nobody else is doing. You can't do that all the time staying in the safe box of “this is the way we always do things.”
Matties: And you have to do it wisely, because even with unlimited resources, you could still wind up being a Samsung and having phones burn up from bad design.
Miller: I was talking to a few of my counterparts in the industry last night at Geek-a-Palooza about the fact that the technology is challenging us on a daily basis. It's really important that we look to bring in new designers. Mutually, we have a lot of mature designers that have been in this business for 30–40 years. There's not a lot of young people coming into replace the aging designers. At Freedom CAD, we have invested in a program to bring in and train new designers, and we're now in our third class of apprentice designers. There's a lot of designers that do things the old-fashioned way because that's the way they've always done it. It may get the job done, but it's not as efficient. The young designers are much more interested in finding out how to do things efficiently and use the tools to their optimum intended use.
Matties: More productivity per minute. Anything that we haven't talked about that you feel like we should be sharing?
Miller: No, I think we're proud of what we do and that we've built a good reputation in the marketplace. The core bones of this company have been in this PCB design business since the beginning. Lou and Lauren Primmer and the company were one of the first CAD users in the country, and they started in this business at the time of Mylar and tape. The bones of the company go back that far and PCB design has come a long way since then.
Matties: Wow, that's great. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and time today with us.
Miller: Thanks, Barry.