Elementary, Mr. Watson: Time to Market, from Ludicrous Speed to Plaid

In 1987, Mel Brooks produced a parody of the Star Wars trilogy with his movie Spaceballs. During one chase scene, the hero Lone Star jumps to light speed in his spaceship Eagle 5, which happens to be a flying Winnebago (of course). The villain, Lord Helmet, orders his ship, Spaceball One, to jump to “ludicrous speed” since light speed or “ridiculous speed” wasn’t fast enough (everyone knows that). In doing so, they streamed across the universe, leaving a plaid light trail behind them. It is a hilarious sequence. 

Time to market is a conversation occurring in boardrooms everywhere. As I speak to more CEOs, VPs, and managers, there seems to be growing optimism that we are slowly breaking out of our COVID cocoons, and businesses are ramping up. Projects that were mothballed and shoved into the back of the closet like an old winter coat once again are seeing the light of day. Everyone is asking, “When can we finish the products and start selling something?” They realize that light and ridiculous speed are not fast enough; we are going to need to make the jump directly up to ludicrous speed. 

I have noticed many columns recently taking up this subject. They seem to have the same basic narrative of making sure that all proverbial “ducks are in a row.” which, of course, is very important. However, the problem goes much deeper than that. Because of what I would describe as a great reset of companies, they take a much deeper look at what drives them and how they do business. The way that companies worked before the pandemic will not be seen again. We have experienced the paradigm shift to end all paradigm shifts. 

What is Time-to-Market?
Time to market, better known as TTM, is the total time from conception to when a product ultimately ends up on the shelf and a customer can buy it. TTM is always a critical subject for any company that wants to stay on the cutting edge of its industry. Because the first company with their product to market gets the most substantial market share, the “catching the market” window, the adverse occurs with each delay getting a product to market. I might add that it is challenging to put real numbers to that sort of loss and determine what late product delays are costing you. It’s only when a product gets on the shelf, and someone buys it that the various company teams earn their keep. As PCB designers, we don’t get paid to “design” (unless you are in a design service bureau of course), but instead, we are designing something that ultimately will end up on a shelf and sold. 

More than the issue with lost income is the lost credibility with the consumer. For example, your sales division promotes a new product release date, that date comes and goes and there is nothing, that is a major letdown for the customers. 

Improving your Time to Market
1. Plan your work and work your plan.
First, resist the impulse to skip this vital step. So many want to jump into the “doing” and never discuss the “how” or, more importantly, the “what.” Many years ago, I had a boss who would constantly ask me, “What are you doing?” It wasn’t to disparage or micromanage me, but rather, by asking that simple question, it helped me identify the objective of what I was after. Defining what you are doing assures that you understand what the team is accomplishing and that you are pointed in the right direction. I am sure that we all have seen people working very hard but achieve very little.

Many also skip this vital planning stage because it is challenging and takes some real discipline to do it right. Whenever you put more than a few people into a conference room, you will come out with more than a few opinions. It does take good communication skills and respect to develop a successful product plan. Different groups in your company have different strategies about precisely when to finish. For example, the sales department would like to have the project wrapped up yesterday.

2. Your plan must be realistic.
Many times you select and attempt the quickest plan. However, understand the fastest way may not be the best. Most likely, it is just the opposite. To stay on an unrealistic schedule, you cut corners, do not do the needed QC checks, and put out an inferior quality product. I have said this before. Do not sacrifice your PCB designs on the altar of expediency to follow an unrealistic schedule.

3. Know your design tools.
I have used various PCB design tools, and have concluded that most of them have the same basic structure in what they can do. Now, of course, each has its unique bells and whistles, which makes them like toolboxes. During specific moments of your design, you pull out the correct tool to use. 

Knowing the correct tools available for the job is vital to getting a PCB design quickly and correctly. No matter what PCB design software you use, take the time to learn it. Learn every detail you can. Some time back while consulting for a company, I watched someone length-tune a set of traces. He had an Excel spreadsheet that he was rather proud of; he input the desired length, and it would calculate out the details of the trace geometry. He would draw a single wave in the trace, and then copy and paste it. Rest assured that this process was time-consuming. I interrupted him and showed him a design software tool where he could automatically length-tune with a button click. He was amazed and told me he didn’t know that was there. Know your tools; you may spend some time learning new ways to do things, but the return has a tremendous impact on time to market and finishing a design. 

4. Know where your finish line is.
Because of bad planning, many times I see projects that have no solid finish line. The best way I can describe it is like playing a Whack-A-Mole at your local arcade. Because there is no clear answer to the question of “What we are doing?” projects just continually drag on. I am sure you have experienced this to some degree. It is a common practice when you reach what you think is the end of designing a product, and someone says those notorious words. “You know what we could do... we could do this or that add some new circuits or features.” Unless you have some intestinal fortitude to say no, your product is heading back to the design stage, and the unfinished product is sucked into PCB design purgatory.

I think Mel Brooks was onto something, although ludicrous speed was to be a joke. But maybe not. If you put an exemplary tune process in place, with a detailed plan and correct checks along the way, how quickly we can move is unknown. But we will easily identify those trailblazers that have learned the lesson of time to market; they will be the ones leaving the plaid trail behind them.

John Watson, CID, is a customer success manager at Altium. 




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