Selling PCB Design Services in a First World Country


By Lance Olive, Director of Business Operations, Better Boards, Inc.

Quality PCB Design is an evolving breed of services in first world countries. As North American and European companies squeeze the skilled designers out of their own workforce, pushing more of the work into Eastern Europe and Asia, those who remain with the skills either opt for retirement, career change or consolidation.

As the Business Operations Director for Better Boards, Inc., I see our company at the focal point for consolidation – a gathering together of skilled board designers to create a center of excellence. It is at this point that we have the critical problem facing a PCB Design services company: How do we effectively sell these services back to the companies that cast off their own skilled employees? How do we sell PCB Design services into small companies that can barely afford the one overworked electrical engineer that they hired last year?

In addressing these key questions, we evaluate the three key challenges and embrace the three tantalizing opportunities. Doing this well gets our foot in the door and positions us to sell these services in the hardware design teams that would prefer to be designing circuits rather than layouts.

The first challenge is the price competitions of both overseas labor and the designer working from home. PCB Design Layout service rates in Europe and North America remain relatively high for companies who know the value of the skill that they bring. Meanwhile, small companies in the Czech Republic, Poland, India, Russia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and China can offer layout services for about half of those domestically. Likewise, the designer in his bonus room has very low overhead (sometimes quite literally, thanks to knee walls) and can often undercut the hourly rates of a proper services company.

The second challenge is that of being multi-lingual in CAD tools. Between the customers demanding the use of Allegro (PCB Designer), Altium, MG Xpedition, Eagle, KiCAD and other cheap and free tools, it’s enough to drive a designer mad. No person can reasonably support all of those. To support multiple customers means to support multiple tools. This is difficult to achieve with just a one or two designers since most professionals are great at one tool, fair with another, and merely aware of the rest. Doing this successfully means establishing a team of designers with varying skillsets – a matrix of designers with a mix of tool knowledge that can support any type of RFQ that comes in.

The third challenge is the commoditization of board layout. Tool vendors tout auto-routing as their newest, most improved, wonderful feature. Electrical engineers prefer to hand off their schematics to someone else to “route the wires”… after all, how hard can it be to connect the dots, quite literally. The expectation is that the layout phase shouldn’t be all that difficult, but we all know that as technology pushes us into hyper-fast clock signals and escaping 0.2mm BGA pins in the smallest number of layers possible, it often does feel like a game of Jenga, Tetris and Candy Crush Saga all rolled into one. The expectation oversimplification of the layout phase of board design leaves many of us pulling what’s left of our hairs out.

But where there are challenges, there also lie opportunities – especially those that give us competitive advantage to nullify the challenges.

The first opportunity is that of a fast turn time. Even though no one plans to be in a hurry, many product development teams, especially their managers and PMs, take longer than expected to get the schematics underway. And when it’s time for layout, they have very little time, want us to start tomorrow and be done in about half the estimated schedule. This is an opportunity for those who have developed an internal process that allows them to actually deliver. And when sitting in the office of a prospective customer and you can tell stories of delivering under duress, it makes the sales job so much easier.

The second opportunity is that of service. In many senses, this is the same axiom that you’ll find in most businesses. In our line of work, if we can make the life of an engineer, a manager or a project manager easier by picking up their pieces, arranging an accurate, timely, best-practice-following board layout so they only need one spin before they are ready to make the push to production, we have provided a service to them that engenders happiness in their own job, creates a level of trust, and becomes their path of least resistance to product success. The loyalty that grows from this is very difficult to sever. Selling services where “service” is truly a core competency being delivered becomes easier.

The third opportunity is one of design accuracy. Getting the board right the first time means investing in reviews on the front end, and saves time and money downstream. I come from the software industry and we would employ a technique known as Development Phase Containment. The concept involved selectively reviewing and approving the design along the way to contain the software bugs to the development phase closest to when they were created. Said another way, when a mistake is made, do what it takes to discover and fix it as quickly as you can because the cost of fixing later it can double every day that it goes undiscovered. In the world of PCB Design, this can take the form of a pin assignment problem, missing pull-up resistors, incorrect assumptions about amplifier behaviors, incorrect x/y/z dimensions for component placement, and reversed polarity, to name a few examples. One the best comments I can make to a prospective customer is to let them know how many of our designs involve just a single iteration before heading to production (although, product marketing can change the best laid plans).

A company that can embrace the opportunities while meeting these challenges head on by changing the way they do business creates fantastic sales stories that enable the sales representative to walk into any prospective customer situation – outsourced, tool-centric, fast-paced, floundering, tight-budgeted, endless iteration – and lay down a scenario that meets them where they are, engenders trust and opens the door to just a small enough crack that, once opened, will open again and again.

Selling PCB Design services is only made easy when the company supplying those services has done all it can do to provide these stories and win prospective customers’ hearts.

Copyright 2016 Lance Olive and Better Boards, Inc.

Reprint permission is granted retaining writing credits