We engineers are a clever lot. After all, consider what we do. We give shape to the complex products that make consumers' lives happier and more profitable. As we tell ourselves — privately, of course — we're Renaissance men.
That's typically why design engineers get into trouble. We're clever all on our own. In fact, we're often too clever by half. So the products we design are only half as good as they could be.
That point was emphasized for me while shopping with my wife recently. At the store, a handsome set of bookshelves caught my wife's eye. Though she was ready to buy, I was struggling with the price tag. Hey, I said, I could make these myself. My sage spouse then asked when I would have the time to build bookshelves — and exactly how much it would cost. I started calculating the cost of materials, the time involved and the equipment necessary.
My wife was right. Just because I could build bookshelves doesn't mean I should.
I offer that cautionary tale to all design engineers. Many times it makes far more sense to enlist the expertise of vendors than to settle for designs based on cursory in-house R&D and using off-the-shelf components. Particularly in the area of custom circuit-protection devices, design engineers are always better served by the experts — and so are their customers in the end.
Consider an HVAC systems manufacturer. It understands blowers, refrigerants and thermostats. But it's stretching its design talent thin when it comes to UL listing of circuit-protection technologies. Sure, the manufacturer's design engineers can limit themselves to using existing available circuit-protection components. But that's when the Law of Unintended Consequences wreaks havoc, resulting in oversized components, increased assembly time and suboptimal product performance.
That's hardly a good trade-off for any Renaissance man.
Conversely, design engineers who team with experts can multiply their strength. Let me offer a case in point. Most OEMs are mid-design before they think about circuit protection. Such was the case with a manufacturer of power pedestals used to control traffic signals. It wanted a smaller enclosure but was limited by the size of the fuse block. Steel enclosures were expensive and the market would prefer a smaller unit. The company was buying stock enclosures to keep costs low, but the next larger size enclosure was much bigger and a lot more expensive. The company finally decided to call Littelfuse and tap into our expertise in developing and manufacturing circuit protection devices. After the company's engineer collaborated with my company's custom-solutions team, we offered to make a custom fuse block that enabled the design to fit in a smaller enclosure. The company saved a half-million dollars and gained important competitive advantages in the forms of lower price and smaller space.
Without question, custom solutions can reduce assembly time, help designers shrink product footprints and increase product performance. Of course, custom solutions demand outside expertise. That's an issue for many designers, who argue customized components lock them into the use of a single vendor. That's true, but the benefits of relying on a reputable expert vendor far outweigh the disadvantages.
To every design engineer, I say, Don't settle for designs based on your own strengths and weaknesses alone. Break out of your comfort zone. Ask yourself, “Could a custom design make my product better or less expensive to assemble — or should I just go it alone?”
Whether it's building bookshelves for the wife or a “better mousetrap” for the marketplace, the answer often is “I could do it by myself — but I shouldn't.”