How to COVID-19-proof your electronics design projects

Author : Dunstan Power | Director | ByteSnap Design

01 July 2020

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It’s fair to say that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of work will probably never be quite the same again. The coronavirus crisis has brought about challenges for electronics design teams – whether in-house or among partners. And while there are plenty of tools & resources for office workers in terms of remote working, communications & collaboration, what about challenges & solutions more specific to design engineers & electronic product development?...

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

Here, Dunstan Power, Director at electronics & embedded systems consultancy, ByteSnap Design offers hints & tips to help keep your electronics & embedded design projects on track while teams work from home during the lockdown...

CAD (computer-aided design) tool licenses, ESD (electrostatic discharge) protection and test equipment access are just a few of the factors to consider to ensure your electronics design teams can still deliver what customers need on time. However, you’ll also need to confirm that your electronics design engineers have all the tools, resources and framework that they need to be able to continue effectively working on projects from their own homes.

The basics

Firstly, establish that they have:

1. Access to all the tools necessary for the job – for example, soldering equipment, spectrum analysers, multimeters, PSUs (power supply units), oscilloscopes and test equipment.

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2. A suitable home-working environment – embedded electronics and firmware engineers typically need more working space than the average office worker, as they will often have target hardware and test equipment that needs to be plugged into their desktop or laptop PCs. Some of our design consultants have repurposed whole rooms to create the required flexible space while working from their homes. And given the potential long-term nature of the lockdown, some have also considered ergonomics and taken office chairs home.

3. Electrical safety measures, 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 ideally not be left powered and unattended in a domestic environment, though 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.

4. The means to ensure data privacy and security – many projects require working with sensitive personal or commercial data, so this needs to be taken care of to the same level at home as it would be in the office.

5. Knowledge of how products that are under development need to be protected – in particular, whether ESD protection is in place. At ByteSnap, we provided all of our engineers working on unenclosed PCBs (printed circuit boards) at home with earthing mats.

6. 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. However, these visits need to be limited to only members of the design team 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 multiple 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 webcams to monitor the status of LEDs and displays on the PCBs. This has reduced significantly the number of people needing to physically access the ‘bare-bones’ office.

Software development resources & secure IT infrastructure

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A solid IT infrastructure, including a secure and good quality VPN (virtual private network) needs to be in place. Encourage engineers to take easily portable IT equipment home to reduce unnecessary VPN loading and improve ease-of-use, rather than resorting to 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 the hardware. 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. 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 from 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 also 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 enable 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 (integrated development environments).

Design tool licenses

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Remember to check your license servers too, as you might need to switch from node-locked licenses 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 or the like only allows 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 license terms and see if you can upgrade to a floating license that can be accessed across a VPN.

Talk to your tools and license providers, as some of them may be offering concessions, such as free or reduced rate license 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).

Supply chain disruption

Given the disruption to various industry supply chains globally, you may need to build extra time into your project plan for delays around sourcing and shipping of parts, modules or components.

Schedule kitting of parts early on in the design process, as even for stock items, parts are currently 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, straight away 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 to you for your development. Will they deliver to your ‘bare-bones’ 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.

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Maintaining regular communications

We’ve found it very helpful to stick to regular, scheduled communications, both company-wide and project-specific. We’ve also increased the frequency of our team briefings to build on our sense of community and have more space to discuss both operational matters and wellbeing.

There are now a large number of common communication and collaboration platforms available, from Microsoft Teams, to Slack or the ubiquitous Zoom. Whichever one you choose, make sure everyone – from new starters or tech newbies to your team’s tech gurus – is able to use all of the features. This will keep the all-important communications channels clear and open.

Keep calm and carry on engineering…

Although we’re in the midst of an uncharted period in history, much of the electronic product design process is unaffected by the restrictions of movement currently in force – so, don’t panic! Instead, follow the steps outlined here and remember to be pragmatic. Product design success while navigating the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown is largely a matter of planning carefully, communicating well, and being diligent and vigilant.

Since the global pandemic prompted lockdown of societies worldwide, millions of workers have become more reliant on remote working. In some respects, electronics product design already involved elements of remote collaboration – from supply chain, to test house or software development teams. But, when it’s your company’s staff having to work from home, it can still prove 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 in this challenging period, but thrive – and hopefully emerge stronger on the other side!


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