Choosing Prototype Components
Engineers can increase profits by selecting outstanding prototype suppliers.
I never took a business class while majoring in engineering, but luckily, I knew a business major who summed up everything he learned about business.
Make a profit.
Even though engineers are not always invited to budget meetings (an oversight, I’m sure), we are driven to increase the company’s profits, otherwise it’s back to delivering pizzas in thirty minutes or less.
And yes, engineers do have the ability to reduce operating cost by selecting the most profitable components when prototyping a new product.
Note: Profitable does not mean the lowest-priced component, but one that will be the lowest-cost for the life of the program.
So what kills profits?
Pulling engineers away from product development to requalify a new supplier when:
- A key component is obsoleted
- Production lines are down due to late deliveries
- Continuous failures that hurt production, which hurts sales
- Counterfeit parts are discovered after the product is built and shipped
As an engineer, I investigate before choosing a prototype component for my next project. Here are a few things I have learned about LCD suppliers.
Ask the supplier for their technology roadmap. How long will they continue to build this display?
Choose a technology that will be around for awhile
Below is a breakdown of the four major LCD technologies and their tendency towards obsolesce.
Organic light emitting diodes are very popular in consumer products, thanks to their sharp contrast, low-power consumption and thin profile. The challenge is that supply is allocated by large OEMs building products such as cell phones, Fitbits, e-cigs, etc. These large OEMs dictate when a display will stay in production or be obsoleted.
The result: The OLED you designed may have a short lifetime. If you need to support your product for several years and choose this technology, be ready to make a lifetime buy to support production.
There is an abundance of TFT (Thin Film Transistor) manufacturers to keep pace with demand from both the large OEMs (tablets, laptops) and small OEMs. The following eight glass sizes have become standardized and are available from several suppliers: 1.8”, 2.4”, 3.5”, 4.3”, 5”, 7”, 8”, 9.”
Note: TFTs are measured by the diagonal distance of the glass size.
Manufacturing cost to build monochrome character displays is so low that there are literally hundreds of suppliers. All of them are building almost identical products with the same standard configurations: 8x1, 8x2, 16x1, 16x2, 20x2, 20x4, and 40x4.
Note: An 8x2 module can display two rows of eight characters at a time.
If your current character supplier stops production, many others can fill in with very little redesign work necessary.
Segment technology can be seen on gas pumps and older digital watches and are still very popular thanks to their low-cost and ability to stretch battery life. The majority are custom built to meet customer specifications.
Since they are custom they are single source, but another LCD manufacturer can tool up and build the exact display for a one-time tooling cost of $1,200 to $3,000.
Track the controller/driver
Most LCD modules (except segment displays) contain a controller driver chip. The chip converts the customer’s software (aka firmware) into letters, numbers and graphics. It is not uncommon for the chips to be discontinued. When they are, other chip suppliers offer equivalents, but the customer’s firmware may need to be modified.
One way to reduce the probability of the chip being obsoleted is to ask your supplier for the manufacture and model number of the controller/driver that comes with your prototype display. Then take a moment to put that info into Google and see how long that supplier plans to supply that chip.
Here is an 8x1 character LCD with LED backlight.
Counterfeits are still lurking in the sea of electronic components. It is not uncommon for brokers to supply you with a prototype LCD from one manufacturer, but supply you with the production LCDs from a different manufacturer.
Make sure your supplier has a quality assurance system in place verifying that each production batch of displays is identical to the prototype sample you approved.
ISO9001: 2015 and the next hurricane
ISO9001: 2015 is a unique animal and has only been in existence for a few years. Unlike older ISO standards, 2015 focuses on the supplier’s contingency plans to deal with ‘what if.’ These are the ‘what if’s’ that can shut down your production line.
My PCB supplier shuts down for an earthquake?
My IC chip manufacturer is flooded from a tsunami?
My shipping agent goes on strike?
My . . . ?
Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes will continue (and their frequency/magnitude seem to be increasing), so ask your supplier for a copy of their contingency plans. It is their job to be paranoid and have a fallback plan in place to keep your production line running.
Custom segment LCD with pins .
Once the product development is done, don’t look back
Maximum profitability is achieved when companies invest their limited resources into new product development while qualifying prototype suppliers, thereby eliminating wasted engineering time to locate and approve replacement components.
When purchasing prototypes samples of critical components (ARM processors, Pic controllers, LCD displays, etc.), contact the manufacturer first before purchasing these components from a broadband distributor.
The manufacturer can provide:
- Production life-span of the component
- Source code
- Their contingency plans for ‘Acts of God’ and how they plan to recover
- And in many cases, no-cost samples.