There are plenty of resources for video conferencing solutions, time management etc, but we thought we would cover solutions more unique to the electronics development sector. So as an electronics design house or in-house electronics team, how can you rise to the trials of remote working and successfully push through projects in a potentially hostile economic climate for the next few months?
Here are the challenges as a team we’ve overcome so far…
There are several factors to check – CAD tool licenses, ESD protection, test equipment access to name a few – to ensure your electronics product design team can deliver to customers what they need and when they need it.
Electronics design resource
In terms of electronics design engineers – you need to be confident that they’re able to continue working on your project in their own homes. Questions to ask include:
What access to tools is necessary for the job? E.g.:
– soldering equipment
– spectrum analysers, Multimeters, PSUs, oscilloscopes
– test equipment
How suitable is their working environment?
Electronics and firmware engineers typically need more space than average workers, due to target hardware and test equipment being plugged into their desktop or laptop PCs. Some of our design consultants have repurposed rooms, for instance.
Also consider ergonomics as this could be a long-term situation. Some staff have taken desk chairs home.
How are engineers able to maintain electrical safety?
Safety of others in the household of the electronics design engineer is equally important, particularly when working with any equipment that is mains powered, generates high voltages or heat. In general, prototype devices should not be left powered and unattended in a domestic environment, though this sometimes cannot be helped during testing, however bear in mind that even the most benign looking board can be a fire hazard if not treated correctly.
How will privacy and security of data be addressed?
Many projects involve working with sensitive data and this needs to be taken care of at home the same as it would be a work.
Are products under development being protected?
In particular, is ESD protection in place? At ByteSnap we provided earthing mats for the engineers working on unenclosed PCBs at home.
Do staff have access to a “bare-bones” shared office?
If they’re still able to access their regular place of work, maintaining social distancing, this can be very helpful in sustaining project momentum.
You would expect these visits to be limited to members of the design team who absolutely need to use the workplace. Typically, those people will be dealing with either large pieces of equipment or hardware-related issues requiring test gear.
However, even here, with a bit of imagination the need to visit the office can be reduced. For instance, on one project our 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.
Software development resource, IT infrastructure
You must have solid IT infrastructure in place such as a good quality, secure VPN. Take IT equipment home that is easily portable to reduce VPN loading and improve ease of use compared with Virtual Network Computing (VNC) and remote desktop. Be sure you have adequate server bandwidth for remote desktops and that your engineers are working with full (preferably at least two) monitors, rather than just huddled over laptops.
Think about how your software engineers will liaise and interact with customers.
For example, some projects might have a screen that must be interacted with via a mouse or touch inputs. This can be problematic when working from home as the user can’t access the screen of the embedded device they are working on. Thankfully, there are workarounds which allow the user to control a screen remotely. Windows Remote Desktop or VNC are two systems, which both comprise of 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 alike.
There are, of course, multiple software tools out there that offer this service; some take this a step further and allow the user to control the remote device from any modern browser, including mobile devices.
Though portable, mobile devices may need to be in close proximity to the embedded devices in the office. There are free tools such as Genymobile (https://github.com/Genymobile/scrcpy) that allow you to view and control a connected Android device.
Again, both your project engineers and those from your design partners, need to be well-versed in your development tools, platforms and IDEs.
Design tool licenses
Remember to check you license servers too.
You might need to switch from node-locked licence to a floating one. If you’re sharing software for a task that you could previously do with 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 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; some may be offering concessions such as free or reduced rate licence upgrades, due to 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).
Given the disruption to various industry supply chains across much of the world, 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 parts are on extended lead times – even for stock items. Plans will need reworking to take this into account. Where we would normally kit each build of prototypes prior to the revision, we have 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 waiting for component deliveries.
Liaise with your suppliers about how they will get any necessary parts from you for your development. Will they be delivered to your barebones office? Or direct to an engineer’s home? Get these details sorted as soon as you can – vital components going astray will only add costly delays to your projects.
We’ve found it very helpful to stick to regular, scheduled communications, both company-wide and project-specific.
Use common platforms – there are several available. Whichever you choose, make sure everyone – from the tech noob to the tech guru on your team – are able to use all the features, thus keeping those all-important communications channels clear.
We’ve increased our team briefings to build on our sense of community and have more space to discuss operational matters and well-being.
Keep calm and carry on engineering…
Although we are in the midst of an unchartered period in history – don’t panic! The truth is, a lot of the electronic product design process is unaffected by restrictions of movement in force in several parts of the world.
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, being diligent and vigilant.
Since the global pandemic prompted lockdown of multiple societies worldwide, millions of workers have become more reliant than ever on remote working. In some respects, electronics product design involves elements of remote collaborations – including supply chain, test house or software development teams amongst others.
However, when it’s your company’s staff having to work from home, it’s still a major adjustment. We’ve discovered that developing some key protocols and procedures have helped us adjust to what may well become the new normal.
And as you also do so, you’ll help ensure that your employees not only survive this challenging period, but will thrive, and – hopefully – emerge stronger the other side.
About the author:
Dunstan Power is Director of ByteSnap Design – www.bytesnap.com