Bottom of the Design Curve with No Budget

Bottom of the Design Curve with No Budget

This week is a Theme Week and we’re writing about our experiences at some point in the product or company’s lifecycle. My Location : Startup. I’ve always seen design engineering as having two distinct categories. Sustaining engineering and R&D engineering. Since I’d always seen Sustaining as being boring (sorry Chris!), involving designing the same product over and over, tweaking it to make it better, but basically understanding how it works already, I managed to start in R&D nearly right out of college. Seb’s recent post seems to prove me wrong, but maybe “Sprockets” have it better than us “Sparkies”! Some of the companies I’ve worked at on a project basis were similar. They had been in existence for years, eking out a living and had a common trait: No money for New Product Development (NPD). I’ve had many successful projects (I came, I designed, it worked), but the unsuccessful ones are more fun to write about. Especially because I can poke at Management (sorry Fluxor!).

On one of my projects, I was tasked with adding a lot of functionality to an existing (but not at all working) product. It had a 12 layer PCB with some beautiful and unnecessary analog functionality. At the start of the project, I was given an electrical specification, an EE consultant for 5 hours a month and a server location to the software. I had to borrow an oscilloscope from another company since Management at my 10 person facility needed an ROI report to prove why I would need a tool that costs $800. After about 8 months, I realized that the company could buy the same thing off the shelf. The designed board cost $11k (yes, thousand) to manufacture and the off the shelf part required a software engineer and $125 each time to buy. How did this situation even happen? Engineering had a meeting with engineers from 2 facilities and came up with the idea to make one embedded circuit board for all the Industrial Equipment products. While a great idea in theory, it wasn’t the best approach since all of the machines had different functionality and needs. Those same engineers from 2 facilities went ahead with the design project….because it was fun, right? Wheee! They also found enjoyment in ordering software engineers to program this and program that. The result? High employee turnover, 2 different software packages, 5 years and a non-functional board. All of the original engineers left and I walked onto the scene. After presenting Management with the off the shelf solution (the room was dead silent during my talk), I thought I’d better find a new project to work on.

I went to work for a company that had 5 people when I joined and 1 marginally successful group of products. Again, no money for NPD. This time the company had an oscilloscope. My first assignment was to analyze an electric motor’s performance that had no documentation. The tasks were varied, from hand cranking a diesel motor (I’m 4’11”), to supervising the rewiring of a facility’s breaker box for higher amperage and even communicating with Germany to get a torque sensor fixed. We never got the motor to turn so it was ultimately fruitless; you get what you pay for, right? My second assignment was to troubleshoot someone’s solar battery system and get all of the parts needed for free. The result? This time I was successful since I was now able to use my newly acquired skills of getting things accomplished with absolutely no budget. My third and final assignment was to design a battery charger. I was tasked to use an untrained assistant and microscope to solder SMD power electronics. 8 months go by. We couldn’t even get the simplest part of the circuit, designed by Texas Instruments’ online tools, to work reliably. I find out that it will cost $600 to get a local manufacturing PCB house to populate 3 boards. Not surprisingly, I find that this is too much money for management to spend on this project. After one of the buck-boost chips catches on fire, Texas Instruments chastises me for hand soldering this circuit. Management tells me I’m not a real engineer. That the project is canceled. I look at the budgets of my past projects and shake my head. Without resources? Management isn’t real management.


Many startups seem to be run by people whose expertise is in something other than technology (venture capital, accounting, marketing). This is not to say that the “I have a dream” techie entrepreneurs are guaranteed to succeed either.

What the non-techies seem to lack is a good understanding of what products they can actually sell. They’re looking for ways to keep the revenue numbers looking good. Hence the desperate scramble to find new products that build on products already in place.

One company thought to expand their business by reworking a product that was typically sold to industrial customers and aiming it at the Walmart/Home Depot customer. Couldn’t be done because the pricing/performance model is completely different for consumer products. But much time was wasted.

Another problem seems to arise from poor project management right at the kickoff and then not knowing when to say stop.

Engineers caught in this Catch-22 have my sympathy.

I have two stories from my career to give to you.

When I was in a military R&D company, the physicists basically ran the technical side of the company. We would set the budget for a project and start the mechanical and electrical design parameters working with the scientists.

As scientists are known to do, they tend to try 1 idea after another until they reached a consenus on how the project was to proceed. During this trial and error approach, they burnt thru my design and engineering budget in no time and left me with no time for my staff to do any detailed design work. Since this was a military project with a fixed price contract, engineering had no option but to sit in front of firing squad every time a monthly budget review came up.

So, the next project I set up the budget differently. The scientists had their own preliminary design budget which was dedicated to their design needs only. Any layout work or trial and error enginnering was charged to that account number.

When the scientists burnt through their fun money, they were the ones that had to answer to management why they were overbudget and showed no project progress. They learned quickly that you don’t run a large dollar contract program like their college research projects. My detailed design and engineering budget was still intact waiting for design information from the scientists.

The 2nd story happened just when the airlines just started to have phones in the seats. After a project proposal with the client, a nice young program manager decided on the plane trip back from the east coast that the company could do the project for a certain fixed price. He used the phone in the seat to call the client and give him the price. The client knew a good deal when he heard the price and agreed to the fixed price.

Once our engineering department saw the project plan and budget, we were in absolute shock. The budget had no G&A added in, no project management budget, a timeline was too short, etc. We had just enough budget to do a half ass mechanical design.

To fabricate the design, we had to rummage through our “scrap piles” for left over unused material for the machine and weld shops. Not the best way to do things.

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