Establish a framework
Factors such as CAD tool licenses, ESD protection and test equipment access are just a few factors you need to check, to ensure your electronics product design team can deliver what customers need on time.
Determine viability of home working for electronics engineers
You also need to be confident that your electronics design engineers are able to continue working on your project from their own homes, so establish
If they have access to all the tools necessary for the job – for example soldering equipment, spectrum analysers, Multimeters, PSUs, oscilloscopes and test equipment.
How suitable their home working environment is. Electronics and firmware engineers typically need more space as they will have hardware and test equipment being plugged into their desktop or laptop PCs. Some of our design consultants have repurposed whole rooms while working from their homes and some have considered ergonomics and taken desk chairs home.
How they can maintain electrical safety, for themselves and others in their household. This is particularly important when working with any equipment that is mains powered or generates high voltages or heat. Prototype devices should not be left powered and unattended in a domestic environment, but sometimes this can’t be helped during testing, so bear in mind that even the most harmless looking board could become a fire hazard if it’s not treated appropriately.
How privacy and security of data will be addressed. Many projects mean working with sensitive data and this needs to be taken care of in the exact same way at home as it would be at work.
How products that are under development are being protected, in particular, whether ESD protection is in place. At ByteSnap we provided all of our engineers working on unenclosed PCBs at home with earthing matts.
Can they have access to a “bare-bones” shared office. If they are still able to access their regular place of work, while maintaining the required social distancing, this can be very helpful in sustaining project momentum, but you would expect these visits to be limited to members of the design team only who absolutely need to use the workplace – such as those who are dealing with either large pieces of equipment or hardware-related issues that require test gear. Even here though, with a bit of imagination, the need for several visits the office can be reduced. For example, on one of our projects, the engineers developed a work-around by using Arduinos to cycle power to boards and web cams to monitor the status of LEDs and displays on the PCBs. This has reduced significantly the number of people in the barebones office.
Ensure software development supported by a secure IT infrastructure
A solid IT infrastructure like a secure and good quality VPN needs to be in place. Take easily portable IT equipment home to reduce VPN loading and improve ease of use, rather than Virtual Network Computing (VNC) and a remote desktop. Ensure you have adequate server bandwidth for remote desktops and that your engineers are working with (preferably at least two) monitors and are not just huddled over small laptop screens.
Think about how your software engineers will communicate with customers. Some projects may have a screen that requires interaction via a mouse or touch inputs and this could be problematic when working from home – particularly if the user can’t access the embedded device screen that they’re working on.
There are workarounds though, which allow the user to remotely control a screen. Windows Remote Desktop or VNC are two such workarounds as both of those systems comprise two key components: a server which shares the screen of the device, and a viewer which displays the screen received form the server at the remote end. Windows Remote Desktop uses built in hardware acceleration on PCs and is the quicker of the two when available in a Windows environment. VNC is more portable and can be used on Linux desktop and embedded boards.
There are multiple software tools that offer a remote control service that enables users to control the remote device from any modern browser, including mobile devices.
Although they are more portable, mobile devices may also need to be in close proximity to the embedded devices in the office, but there are free tools such as Genymobile (https://github.com/Genymobile/scrcpy) which enables users to view and control a connected Android device.
Again, here both your project engineers and those from your design partners all need to be well-versed in your development tools, platforms and IDEs.
Adapt design tool licenses
Remember to check your license servers, as you might need to switch from node-locked licence to a floating one. If you’re sharing software that could previously only be accessed using a node-locked device (node locked is where the license of a CAD tool, compiler etc only allows the operation on a single PC by the use of a MAC address or plug in dongle), that would normally be fine in a shared office.
However, with your electronics design engineers now all working remotely, you will probably need to check your licence terms and see if you can upgrade to a floating license that can be accessed across a VPN.
Talk to your licence suppliers as some of them may be offering concessions such as free or reduced rate licence upgrades during the lockdown. For example, OrCAD are currently providing a 30 day free license to users to help them work from home (see https://www.orcad.com/orcad-work-from-home-program).
Factor in supply chain disruption
Given the disruption to various industry supply chains globally, you may need to build extra time into your project, for delays around sourcing and shipping of parts/modules/components.
Schedule kitting of parts early on in a design process, as even for stock items, parts are on extended lead times. Plans will need reworking to take this into account. For instance, where we would normally kit each build of prototypes prior to the revision, we have now switched to kitting later builds as well as the first revision, once the BOM is ready. The small wastage from changes to the design after the first revision is easily offset by the potential saving in time which would have been spent waiting for component deliveries.
Liaise with your suppliers about how they will get any necessary parts from you for your development. Will they deliver to your barebones office or directly to engineers’ homes? Sort those details out as soon as you can to avoid vital components going astray, which will only add costly delays to projects.
Keep in touch with regular communications
We’ve found it very helpful to stick to regular, scheduled communications, both company-wide and project-specific. We’ve also increased our team briefings to build on our sense of community and have more space to discuss operational matters and well-being.
Use common platforms as there are a large number available. Whichever one you choose, make sure everyone – from new starters and tech newbies to your team’s tech gurus – is able to use all of the features. This will keep all-important communications channels clear.
Keep calm and carry on engineering…
Much of the electronic product design process is unaffected by restrictions of movement in force just now. So, don’t panic. Instead, take the steps outlined here and remember to be pragmatic.
Product design success whilst navigating the impact of COVID-19 is largely a matter of planning carefully, communicating well, and being diligent and vigilant.
Since the lockdown started, millions of workers have become more reliant on remote working and, in some respects, electronics product design already involved elements of remote collaborations. But, when it’s your company’s staff having to work from home, it’s still a major adjustment. We’ve discovered that developing key protocols and procedures has helped us adjust to what may well become the new normal. At the same time, those protocols and procedures are ensuring teams don’t just survive this challenging period, but thrive.
About the author:
Dunstan Power is Director of ByteSnap Design – www.bytesnap.com