The role of engineers is evolving as they help their employers respond to ongoing shortages in the semiconductor supply chain.

Design engineers have typically spent very little time pondering the efficacy of the supply chain that will get their products to market. They are just not wired like that. Once a design is completed it is tossed over to procurement and manufacturing making the sourcing of components someone else’s responsibility. This is a luxury few companies can afford anymore.

Nowadays, the task of ensuring a smooth production process and on-time delivery of electronics goods has become the job of everyone in the design and supply chains. Huge changes are occurring in the electronics design chain fueled by the pains of the current semiconductor shortages. Companies are facing massive spikes in average selling prices and pulling everyone in for solutions. This time, design engineers are leading the band of solution providers because the entire process begins with them, according to observers. 

The design chain is being forced to adopt new tactics in response to the shortages. In fact, design engineers are now in the vanguard of helping to develop and create resilient supply chains, say industry sources. 

“The shift from designing based on first choice to designing based on first available for a prolonged period is a ripple effect from the overall shortages that could significantly impact the electronics industry,” said Peggy Carrieres, VP of sales enablement and supplier development at Avnet Inc., in a statement. “However, it also represents an opportunity for engineers to lean on their partners with added visibility into the supply chain to ensure they are creating flexibility in their designs based on market conditions to avoid compromising quality.”

Obviously, the era of design engineers paying lip service to design for manufacturability (DFM) ended sometime after the outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in a shutdown of major global economic activities in early 2020, leading eventually to one of the semiconductor industry’s worst bouts of shortages. Researchers at management consulting firm Bain & Company say senior executives are looking for a multi-faceted solution to the shortages crisis and have pulled design engineers into the fray because the challenges are not expected to disappear anytime soon.

“The problem, as many executives are painfully aware, is there are no quick fixes,” said Peter Hanbury, Bill Radzevych and Benjamin Grant, at Bain & Company in a report. “Although there’s now a light at the end of the tunnel, we expect the current shortage to last at least through the second quarter of 2022. Furthermore, the reality is we’re going to see more of these kinds of global supply chain disruptions in the future, and likely not only among semiconductors.”

These changes are rippling through the industry inundating electronics engineers with catchy new phrases they must now embrace and deploy during the product design phase. While design for manufacturability (DFM) has for long been a popular lingo—although favored mostly by component engineers rather than design engineers—a new set has joined the lexicon. Observers said design for resilience (DFR) and design for availability (DFA) must be on the minds of design engineers as they shepherd their ideas to production.

Today, by default, design engineers are compelled to think also like component engineers. DFR and DFA are related, self-explanatory acronyms, according to industry sources.

“Designing for resilience is a preemptive move. Engineers do this when the company isn’t facing an imminent supply disruption, but the company still sees a reason to prepare for that possibility,” said the Bain & Company group. “This means the company has ample time to design a product to avoid reliance on vulnerable components and build in more flexibility. This could happen upstream, before a product is in market, or it could happen downstream when a product is already in the market and would benefit from a more fundamental, deep redesign.”

DFA, on the other hand, “comes into play when there’s already a supply disruption and the company needs to make urgent, targeted product adjustments to rapidly respond, using available components,” they noted.

A recent survey by component distributor Avnet Inc. reported similar findings. The survey respondents—mainly engineers—told the pollsters that engineers believe their role is changing as they help their employers respond to the ongoing semiconductor shortages. Coupled with the shortages puddle they must wade through is the ugly specter of counterfeiting, which has emerged even more aggressively as counterfeiters seek to take advantage of the situation, Avnet reported.

“76% of respondents said they expect counterfeit components to increase, but another 8 in 10 (83%) emphasized that they work with distributors to lessen the chance of encountering those counterfeit parts,” the company said. “But Avnet found that availability is impacting more than just where engineers are seeking the parts for their designs—it is also impacting how they create said designs. In the wake of the shortages, two-thirds (64%) of respondents said their company is designing more based on availability of components over preference.”

How can design engineers help in mitigating the effects of the ongoing shortages on enterprise operations and efficiency? Options include “replacing back-ordered components with similar but more feature-rich units (for example, swapping in chips with more memory) and using consumer-grade chipsets that receive additional quality tests,” McKinsey & Co., suggested, in a report.

Engineers at distribution companies are also trying to assist with more recently introduced Best Practices. Raymond Yin, director of technical content at Mouser Electronics offered four key actions OEMs and design engineers can take. They are:

  Expand the AVL (approved vendor list) up front. Qualify new suppliers and alternate sources in the design process rather than scramble to find replacements when the line is down.

  Make sure to have alternate solutions in pin compatible packages where possible. These aren’t necessarily the exact part number desired (they could be more expensive, for example), but those that would work should the primary be unavailable.

  Use the product information functions within CAD tools to make sure there is some availability for product being put into a schematic. Parts that are perpetually “out of stock” should probably be avoided.

  Establish relationships with key distributors and manufacturers. Product line and business unit engineers can sometimes provide 1-2 pieces for engineers to complete prototypes or evaluations.

Other possible actions identified by design engineers include increasing design reliance on software, thereby cutting back on the number of components on the board and increasing the design modularity. To cut down on the total number of parts used, many design engineers are going further by simplifying the product architecture.

Some companies have increased their investments in design resilience activities and are getting component engineers more closely involved in the design process to reduce the probability of a complete redesign in the event certain components became unavailable.

Design engineers are also working closely together with other segments of the manufacturing system, said Bain & Co.’s researchers. Some enterprises are providing the structure for this kind of collaboration by creating what they termed “agile engineering design teams” that can be deployed to address potential bottlenecks, they said.

“The most successful companies start by deploying an agile team with the right skills to quickly and effectively achieve the redesign and give it a set of clear goals and incentives to deliver on the project,” the researchers said. “This type of effort should be focused solely on ameliorating areas affected by the supply shortage and doesn’t usually warrant a full-size product design team. The most effective agile engineering teams rapidly modify software to accommodate new parts, adjust the current product to free up resources for more important features, and use rapid prototyping and testing to validate the new designs.”