Author: Indrek Keskküla, an electronics engineer at Krakul

Indrek Keskküla is an Electronics Engineer at Krakul, and he is also a true fan of the field, as he keeps a blog where he shares his thoughts and tips about the electronics development process. We will be sharing some of his blog posts in English. If you would like to read his original blog in Estonian, visit his Electronics Design Blog. The first post is about the role of management in a successful electronics development project. Enjoy!

I’ll be writing a series of articles aimed at electronics engineers about the electronics development process. However, I can’t start until I write one article aimed at the management level, these include positions such as product owner, technical manager, or area manager, etc.

The managers should ultimately care that the development project is completed on time, with the right budget, and solves the right problem. Therefore, the order to implement the development process should come from them.

My experience in operating at the management level is small, and my goal here is not much to teach. Rather, to open up a little about how engineers see development projects and where the probability of project success could be significantly improved by controlling project input.

Below are some problems that can be solved at the management level.

Unclear expectations for the project

There are always various ways to solve the same design task. The difference can be in the time spent on the design, the price of the final product assembly, the product’s reliability, production, testing, etc. If the client lacks the expectation of the project, i.e., what this product must do for their client, the engineer lacks the broader context to make the best design choice for the client.

An engineer may think that quality is the most important thing, but the customer has his maintenance team, which replaces broken equipment without much pain. Instead, he would need the product development part of the unit price to be as low as possible.

An engineer may assume that the deadline is inflexible and sacrifices quality. But for the customer, it doesn’t matter if they wait two or three months. However, a defective product would scare away his end customers.

From the vision of a product, service, or business model, you cannot directly step into an electronics development project. In the meantime, there are a few more steps to take. The vision must become a strategy and the strategy an action plan. What strategic goal should be achieved with the created electronic assembly?

What is the business plan? How quickly must it be on the market? What should be the cost price of the electronic system? What is the expectation for operation and reliability?

Of course, it makes sense to talk to the engineers about this as well. Ask for input on technical capabilities, expected timelines, and budgets.

But it can’t be an afterthought that comes up when engineers start asking. This plan must be complete, on paper, locked, and consistent with the rest of the plans. Engineers need to be clear about what is expected of the device they create.

Incompatibility of expectations and resources

The most important resource for a successful electronics project is your access to technical expertise. The experience and competence of your development team determine how much time and money will be spent, the reliability of the time and money estimates, and the quality of the development work.

Suppose the planned production quantity is small and the product is technically simple. In that case, the best development team can be two students, for whom participation in, for example, your start-up company is suitable as a salary.

If you want a product that can be produced in tens of thousands, with a 10-year lifespan, and a development schedule and budget that can’t be pushed, you need an experienced and well-managed development team that spends many hours working on process documentation.

However, if you make the students do your design intended for mass production, expectations and resources are incompatible. Young developers cannot grasp the full complexity of a large-scale project. They cannot identify holes in the source task. Unable to plan product development and testing cycles. Not familiar enough with production technologies. They can also not draw a development plan and, based on it, give adequate estimates of how much time and money it will take to implement the project.

They are cheap at first glance, but the warranty repair of the sold equipment is also money. They are also self-confident, but the old truth helps with this – if he can explain to you clearly how he intends to achieve the goals and his ego is not hurt by the question, he is probably competent.

Your development team does not need to be part of your organization and the management level does not need to know the details of what electronics development involves. However, the management level must find people who know and whose advice they trust.

Each project part is a straight placement on the time-money-quality triangle. You can quickly get a cheap thing whose quality is second to none. You can get a very good thing quickly, but it requires a professional and well-coordinated team, which is expensive to hire.

Make sure that the resources you bring to the development project meet the expectations you have for the project.

Changing expectations during the project

One of the most important aspects of the Lean philosophy is the avoidance of waste. It does not make sense for a company to pay for work that does not create value for the customer. However, from the engineering side, I see too often how the goal we need to achieve moves during the project.

Sometimes changing development goals is objectively necessary. Anything can change during the project and maybe the change is critical to the business.

Mostly, however, the necessary changes come from insufficient planning and preparations. Some functions were completely forgotten. Some interfaces were specified to the wrong standard. Some outputs were specified for the wrong type of load.

The later these changes come in the project, the more there is waste – work done that will not be used, time that cannot be recovered, and a hole in the budget. A hole that can be filled with additional money or a compromise in quality.

There are unknowns in launching any business model. They should be mapped and eliminated before developing a production-ready product. Both types of unknowns are helped by prototypes and technology demonstrations at various stages of maturity, and testing them in their final application.

Don’t be afraid to spend some resources to make sure that the task that you are applying the core strength of your technical team to solve fulfills the strategic purpose of your business.

In conclusion

Compared to management-level tasks, engineering is simple. Engineering is much more amenable to measurement and models. It’s easy to tell if something is working or not. However, in engineering, it is not possible to ensure quality, timeliness, and staying on budget without a development process.

The development process in electronics has limited positive effects if it is implemented in a vacuum. I recommend greater systematization to managers as well – write things down, draw diagrams, and do calculations. The material that is created in this way helps you formulate your plan more clearly, identify unknowns, is an input for engineers, and increases the probability of project success.