Electronics design rescue: why projects fail – and the road to recovery

03 January 2020

ByteSnap_Electronics Design Rescue_data
ByteSnap_Electronics Design Rescue_data

Even with the best requirements & specifications, electronics design projects can drift. Missed deadlines lead to slower time-to-market, frustration in both technical & management teams, and potential financial and reputational damage if a product isn’t delivered on time. The dreaded words, “stop ship” can cost a company dearly, with knock-on effects leading to financial loss or even penalties from customers.

This article was originally featured in the January 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Here, Dunstan Power, Director at electronic & software design experts, ByteSnap Design examines the main causes of project failure, reviews some case studies of rescued projects – and outlines key tips to get back on track.

Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, Anna Karenina begins with the line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. This well-known quotation has given rise to a principle now known as the Anna Karenina principle, which states that deficiency in any one of a number of factors can condemn an endeavour to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavour (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

Main causes of project failure

In other words, each unsuccessful project has its own unique problems. Sometimes, a single event is the cause; but often, it is a complex, intertwined set of factors that cumulatively result in failure.

ByteSnap Design is an award-winning embedded systems consultancy, and at this year’s Electronics Design Show, we launched a new discreet service designed to put struggling electronics projects back on track.

ByteSnap_Electronics Design Rescue_wire-cube
ByteSnap_Electronics Design Rescue_wire-cube

Called the ByteSnap Design Rescue Service, it includes a thorough analysis of a project to identify reasons for failure, advice on the best approach for rescue, and provides realistic timelines for delivery. The service was developed for the increasing number of clients looking to troubleshoot ailing embedded electronics and software design projects.

Whether a project is drifting because of staff churn and issues with replacements, internal politics, incorrect component selection caused by lack of specific knowledge within a technical team, or developing a product that is simply too difficult to manufacture, getting a project back on track should be a priority – especially if costs are skyrocketing.

Based on reviews of the projects presented to ByteSnap Design for rescue, the following are the most common issues that lead or contribute to the failure of electronics design projects:

1. Obsolescence – electronics components

going obsolete before the design is finished.

2. Hardware choices – inappropriate hardware selection.

3. Redesign life limited – obsolescence workarounds are not possible or cost effective.

4. Field trial issues – intermittent failures of equipment in the field.

5. Slipping timescales – “we-can-learn-that” confidence, which is now hindering the design process, adding delays to product launch.

ByteSnap_Electronics Design Rescue_close-up-shot-of-broken-smartphones
ByteSnap_Electronics Design Rescue_close-up-shot-of-broken-smartphones

6. Skills leakage – project-critical design engineers leaving the business.

7. Lack of resources – meltdown in another product or a larger, more time-sensitive project, which requires all hands-on deck.

8. OS no longer best fit –  operating system is no longer supported or secure.

Sample rescue projects

Let’s look at some sample projects we have worked on to see how they were turned around.

Far East failure

A health-tech company had turned to a Far East electronics firm to design a specialist medical device for emergency responders. Six months later, over half the budget had been spent on a non-functioning device. ByteSnap conducted a feasibility study before subsequently carrying out all the hardware design and software design.

Another business had been working with an Original Design Manufacturer in the Far East who put together an architecture for a security camera that was unable to deliver the required performance. ByteSnap updated the architecture and ensured that the core software could still be used to finally get the product to market.

ByteSnap Design Rescue Engineering Consultants
ByteSnap Design Rescue Engineering Consultants

For another company, hardware designed in China was being hacked before ByteSnap updated the device to ensure it was secure.

EMC compliance test

There have been some cases where the client has approached with a PCB which was failing all EMC compliance tests. Board layout was poor and following board review and redesign, it passed with flying colours.

Cutting corners

Previous development efforts failed to deliver a working device for a client that originally wanted to customise an off-the-shelf solution, but then engaged a contractor to deliver a bespoke design. However, the resultant development ended with a non-functioning product, and unhappily, the client was “ghosted” by the contractor, who didn’t respond any of their calls and emails. ByteSnap was able to reverse engineer the device to salvage any hardware and software, and to ensure that the product was ready for manufacture.

Labs affected by obsolescence & failing software

This company sold a lab device based on outdated software, without the latest security patches. Based on unsupported software, the design was rescued by recommending replacement embedded Linux software to ensure continued sales.

Bytesnap Design Rescue Flow Chart
Bytesnap Design Rescue Flow Chart

Another scientific firm needed a thorough understanding of why their lab software was failing, repeatedly crashing and rebooting – costing them thousands of pounds each time in lost experimental samples. ByteSnap stepped in to identify the root cause of failure, test the fix and save the client significant expense.

The Design Rescue process is straightforward and includes:

1. Open communication with those on the project, both technical staff & management. The development team needs to recognise there is a problem. Indeed, the hardest part of the process can often be making a start and admitting that there is a high risk of failure. A brief consultation with a design rescue engineer can establish the problem and understand the device or system involved.

2. Analysis of existing design. Towards the end of an initial free consultation, a design rescue consultant will state whether the project is salvageable, and provide an estimate of the time and cost involved.

3. Detailed design review by Design Rescue engineering experts. Modifying the system and testing the changes to get to the root cause of the problem and identify usable elements of the design.

4. Results verification & planning. The project owner and the rescue engineers discuss the changes and plan the next steps for the project. This could involve verifying the changes with a limited production run, or releasing modified software to a few key customers.

5. Integration. The design changes are pushed into production for implementation and the project owner is supported throughout the entire Design Rescue process.

ByteSnap supports clients throughout the entire Design Rescue process and for more information, please visit: www.bytesnap.com/about-us/design-rescue-service-fixing-electronics-software-product-designs/

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