Minimizing Development Costs on Low- to Mid-Volume Products

My last post suggested ways to reduce parts costs in a low- to mid-volume product. This post explores ways to keep development costs low while still creating a cost-effective product.

You can’t escape the fact that it takes money to create a low-cost product. It is estimated that the first version of the iPhone had COGS (cost-of-goods-sold) of around $200. That is very impressive given all of the included features. However, it is also estimated that Apple spent around $150M over 30 months to design the iPhone. In addition to that direct investment, Apple was also able to entice their component vendors to spend huge amounts of money to design custom ICs for the device.

Our clients typically do not have that kind of money to invest in a new product. (Although please give us a call if you do!) And even if they did, it often doesn’t make business sense to invest a lot of money in upfront engineering in order to reduce COGS, unless you have high volumes. So it’s more typical that we are performing a balancing act between the budget available for engineering and meeting the target COGS that is necessary for a successful product.

Here are some guidelines that we use to keep development costs low and still create cost-competitive products.

  • Start with solid requirements definition.

The most successful design projects start with clear product requirements. Starting a project with known requirements (and not changing them during the product design phase) is the best way to minimize development costs. Of course, most projects aren’t so lucky as to have perfectly defined requirements. It usually takes the management team some time to balance the requirements, development cost targets, product cost targets and project timelines. Still, the more quickly you can define what the product has to do, the less the engineering team will thrash — and thrashing costs money.

  • Keep the schedule short.

This is pretty obvious, but the longer a project takes, the more it costs. We’re big believers in rapidly getting a solid, but perhaps less-fully-featured, product to market. In addition to keeping development costs low, this strategy also allows you to quickly gain feedback from the market and focus investment for an enhancement release on the most important areas.

  • Hire an experienced design team.

An experienced design team will put together a more accurate project schedule and budget, is more likely to meet the project deadlines and is better prepared to overcome the inevitable hurdles along the way.

  • Explore the trade-offs between custom hardware design and using off-the-shelf components.

For low- to mid-volume products, using off-the-shelf subsystems and components can be a very tempting way to reduce development costs. However, off-the-shelf subsystems (such as single board computers, power supplies, cases, etc.) can be quite a bit more expensive than custom-designed hardware. It is worth a thorough investigation of what solutions might exist to reduce your design effort yet still meet the product cost targets. Small hardware vendors may be willing to modify their products to fit your application and costs, and may not charge NRE to do this. As with all vendors, negotiating goes a long way towards minimizing your costs.

  • Put together a hardware prototype early in the project.

In most product development projects, the software effort is larger than the hardware effort. As such, we structure projects to give the software engineers as much time as possible to work on the target hardware. This maximizes the time available for low-level hardware and software bugs to be found and resolved.

  • Start with reference designs and evaluation boards where possible.

Most semiconductor products have reference designs and evaluation boards available to give you a head start. For a low-volume product, these designs can be especially helpful to minimize development time.

  • Use the vendor Field Application Engineers

IC vendors usually have FAEs that will help integrate their products into your design. FAEs are usually willing to do schematic reviews, help with software drivers, and even help debug parts of the system if necessary. These folks increase the chance of a successful first revision design and can reduce the development time of a product.

  • Use open-source software where possible.

We are big advocates of open-source software here at Cardinal Peak. There is a huge opportunity for reducing the development time and costs in a project by using open source modules. However, it is not easy to properly integrate open source software (especially real-time or embedded modules) into a complex product. To properly take advantage of the open-source benefits, a team that has experience with this is imperative.

Mike Deeds is an expert in embedded systems hardware and software engineering, including FPGA design and computer architecture.