Ensuring electronic design projects survive disruption

23rd December 2020
Alex Lynn

The electronic design industry was just one of many that saw business change as a result of the recent supply chain disruptions brought about by the unforeseen COVID-19 lockdown.

By Dunstan Power, Director of ByteSnap Design

In the midst of the pandemic, electronics companies had the chance to showcase their versatility, with many turning their attentions towards supporting healthcare systems and government innovation schemes for design solutions to help protect lives.

A recent survey that ByteSnap Design conducted, to identify how the electronics industry was responding to the coronavirus pandemic, revealed that - unsurprisingly - those working alongside or in the medical/healthcare sector anticipate the quickest business recovery once life returns to normal. 

In the survey, called ‘Navigating COVID-19: The New Normal’, 18% of respondents, from a range of industries including automotive, industrial, MedTech and components, witnessed increased disruption to their businesses. An encouraging 22% did not experience any dip in sales activity, while the majority (86%) believed that their businesses would be back on track within a year. 

So, how has the upheaval of lockdown changed the electronics supply chain? It affected supply chains' inventory, and prototyping and development processes, as there was a natural reduction of inventory, and prototyping and development processes took longer than usual. Both of these were partly due to delays in shipments caused by restrictions. However, new remote working arrangements implemented due to the pandemic also meant that many electronics teams had to work from home to deliver what customers needed on time.

Electronics design companies themselves have had to adapt to reflect changing demand for products and services.11% of the electronics design professionals surveyed are now holding more stock in-house rather than JIT and 80% said they would consider onshoring more now - especially with component supply difficulties and as the market contracts.

There has been a reliance on imports from Chinese and other international markets, which should now be addressed. One of our survey respondents explained how their use of components from Taiwan has ensured business continuity thanks to their Taiwanese manufacturing partners covering the slack during lockdown. Indeed, the country has managed the pandemic very well due to previous solid plans to fight any SARS infections.

There is an expectation now that the electronics design industry will be less reliant on China for production and that may herald more global diversification, which can only be a good thing. And, if there are enough other people in the same boat, alternatives which may not have previously existed will also start to appear, due to that latent demand. Sadly, some companies are hoarding electronics as one survey respondent shared that ‘we had 55 boards prepaid and reserved, we still did not get them as our supplier sold them to other customers - we were gazumped by larger customers’.

Without government interest though, the bad habits of over-extended supply chains and expatriation of design and manufacture may well continue. The government should prioritise addressing design and manufacturing security in much the same way as it used to in terms of food production.

Given the disruption to supply chains globally, electronics designers in most industries have built extra time into their projects this year, to allow for delays in sourcing and shipment of parts/modules/components. It’s always best to schedule kitting of parts early on in a design process too, as - even for stock items - parts are on extended lead times. But now, moving forward, smart electronics designers will be reworking plans to take this into account so that, rather than kitting each build of prototypes prior to the revision, they’ll be kitting later builds as well as the first revision now, once the BOM is ready.

Any wastage from changes to the design after the first revision will be offset by the time that would have been spent waiting for component deliveries. Close liaison with any and all suppliers is advised so you know how they will get any necessary parts for your development, and whether they can deliver directly to engineers’ homes or to your business’ address. Since the pandemic began, millions of workers have become more reliant on remote working, so by confirming delivery details as soon as possible with your suppliers, you can avoid vital components going astray and, consequently, costly project delays.

If you outsource to other parts of the globe, by regularly reviewing supply chains, you can ensure your business has a robust solution in place to immediately respond to any unforeseen delays, such as those exacerbated by the current global restrictions in movement.

It’s best to always have a contingency in place so that any disruption does not put your entire electronics product design project on hold.

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