Reference Designs and the Next Generation of Demand Generation

One of the challenges that the component industry faces is understanding the roles different employees play within the intricate process of hardware design. Which of these players are the gatekeepers, the influencers, and the decision-makers behind a component’s design-in? At what stage in the process are manufacturers most able to effectively communicate the competitive advantage of their products? At Octomyze, we’ve found that the most important design decisions are often made early on in the design process by design engineers.

The role of design engineers has been expanding: not only are they responsible for the high-level design of a product, but they now have more of an active role in the entire product realization process, from conceptualization to assembly to production. They employ design-for-manufacturability and design-for-assembly philosophies and practices in their work to reduce time-to-market and avoid potential supply chain disruptions. At hardware startups, they might even be responsible for inventory management and travel to suppliers to supervise the manufacturing process. In short, design engineers are taking on more logistics responsibilities in addition to their core design roles.

As a result, the workflow of these design engineers has become exceedingly complex. They must somehow make decisions that concurrently account for a variety of factors, including design requirements, pricing and availability, lead-time considerations, assembly time and costs, environmental concerns, and regulatory standards. In order to make these decisions, engineers are burdened with retrieving and reviewing large quantities of technical data and documentation scattered both on- and off-line. It can be a highly inefficient and painstaking process.

Octomyze aims to address these inefficiencies with solutions that consolidate and organize the data and documentation that engineers require. Octomyze’s Reference Designs Placement is one such solution. It’s an example that illustrates both how far design tools have progressed since the early days of hardware design and just how much further Octomyze is able to take them.

Reference designs are working circuit diagrams of a system, such as a Bluetooth or Ethernet interface, built around a particular component. Manufacturers (and sometimes distributors) create these designs in order to demonstrate to engineers how a component can be used and to persuade them to use it. These designs have become essential to the design process: Engineers use these designs to evaluate the functionality and performance of a component before making part selection decisions, and they commonly incorporate reference designs with as-needed customizations into their own design, significantly shortening the design schedule. Because of this, the reference design can have a role in determining what other parts are designed into the board. For these reasons, reference designs are not only a technical reference; they are an essential marketing tool.

Semiconductor manufacturers recognized this back in the 1960s when they first began to publish data books. These data books included descriptions of integrated circuits that would include written use cases, oscilloscope traces, and schematics. Due to space limitations, these descriptions were not extensive, but they provided useful ideas to engineers. For updates, engineers would look forward to the next annual edition of these data books. With the advent of the internet, these descriptions would no longer be restricted to a page or two in a physical book, and those descriptions would gradually become more thorough.

Since then, the number and the complexity of components have increased at an exponential rate, and engineers have become more reliant upon reference designs to acquaint themselves with the thousands of new technologies that emerge every year. Now it is expected for manufacturers to publish fully-tested reference designs accompanied with detailed part information, which may include parametric data, PCB layout, CAD symbols, performance curves, a BOM, and even photographs of a fully assembled board.

Component manufacturers came to see these expectations as an invaluable opportunity to demonstrate their components’ strengths and ease of use to the engineer. They are motivated to deliver comprehensive, high-quality information about their product to the engineer, and they go to great lengths to engage with the engineer’s design by allowing them to simulate the development and prototyping of that design. National Semiconductor (now a division of Texas Instruments) began offering an online tool called WEBENCH to adjust and test a circuit’s parameters and configuration. Analog Circuits’ interactive reference design library, Circuits from the Lab, features circuit tutorials, schematics in native EDA format, layout files, and various design tools.

But even today, engineers often spend a great deal of time finding and aggregating reference designs. According to a white paper by TFI Supply Chain, reference designs are the single most challenging kind of data to find and aggregate. In part, this is due to the fact that for some chips reference designs are proprietary and confidential. However, it is also because, unlike data sheets or supply chain data, there are no libraries available that aggregate and organize these designs. Many of these reference designs are not actively marketed by manufacturers, who instead rely on their direct sales channels. And when the engineer does find a reference design, it requires substantial effort to put them to use. Many reference designs are written in PDF format, and engineers are accustomed to the laborious ritual of translating these designs into their preferred PCB design tool.

Octomyze’s Reference Design Placement offers component manufacturers the opportunity to make their references accessible and ready-to-use from within Altium Designer, a leading PCB design tool software used by over 100,000 engineers worldwide at companies such as Tesla, Boeing, Bose, and NASA. In this program, Altium’s content generation team will translate manufacturers’ reference designs into Altium format and publish them in a reference designs library on the next release of Altium Designer, where users can browse by application or by manufacturer, and from which engineers can drag and drop the design directly into their workspace.

This is one example of how Octomyze creates opportunity for the component industry out of solving challenges that engineers face. We take useful content from manufacturers and distributors and use that content to generate demand and make it easier for engineers to do their work. We think this transition from traditional display advertising to solutions-based advertising is the future of demand generation. After all, the history of reference designs has shown us that the most valuable form of demand generation is in fact value generation: Just as engineers choose to use platforms that make data more accessible and easy-to-use, engineers choose to engage with marketing that is contextual, relevant, and useful, marketing that does not detract from the user experience but enhances it.

As the gateway into the designs of thousands of design engineers, Octomyze offers you an exclusive opportunity not only to ease and simplify the design process for engineers but to influence and inspire the design decisions of tomorrow’s innovators.