FEATURE
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Get outside help

Graham Rothon, managing director at Pacer International, believes outsourcing optoelectronic design can benefit photonics companies large and small

As an engineer, it can be very frustrating to develop a product on paper, only to be prevented from realising it in its physical form by any number of reasons – lack of funds, no access to facilities or even insufficient expertise.

An answer provided by an increasing number of reputable photonics companies – ourselves included – is third-party design and engineering. At Pacer, we opened our own design centre a few years ago, and its popularity since then has proved that there are many entrepreneurs and engineers who are grateful for the benefits that outsourcing product development can bring.

The level at which you can take your product to a third-party designer varies. Maybe you have nothing more than a paper concept and have no idea how to turn it into a fully-working prototype. Perhaps you already have a base design and need help to move it on to the next stage. Or you could even have developed your product to a prototype – only to find that there is some problem that you just can’t identify. Lastly, you may simply not be in a position to be able to afford your own in-house design resource. In all these cases – and we have dealt with issues like these, and everything in between – turning to outside help could be just the answer you are looking for.

So, what should you look for when selecting a third-party designer? To start with, they should offer you something that you cannot access yourself. This can be anything from R&D facilities through to access to the latest technology or industry contacts. They must also offer a costcompetitive alternative compared to an in-house solution.

Depending on your specific requirements, you need to be sure that the outsourcer has the facilities to make and test your product thoroughly. This means having the correct environment, relevant quality approvals and standards, and the appropriate test equipment available. They should also demonstrate a high level of up-to-date industry knowledge. Here, for example, we send our engineers on every training course our suppliers offer us, so they are always equipped with the latest information on available components. Being able to tap into that knowledge can make the difference between your product being an ‘also ran’ or a market leader.

There are several other advantages to outsourcing, not least of which is the fact that any risk is at the very least shared, or in certain cases, removed altogether. A competent third-party designer should be able to tell you, at a very early stage, if your product is likely to work. If they believe that it won’t, you can go back to the drawing board before committing any further funds.

If you go ahead with a project, there are various financial models that can help you see that design through to manufacture. Some developers will charge a hefty upfront fee, but then you are free to reap the entire profits of the end-result. Others may effectively go into a joint venture with you, whereby any upfront fee is waived in lieu of shared profits further down the line. Whichever route you choose, be sure that any agreement is transparent and that both parties are happy with the financial arrangements before embarking on the project.

It’s also important to understand just where the project ends. Some developers will give you a prototype and associated plans, and leave you to choose your own path from that point. Others will see it through to manufacture and beyond. At Pacer, we’ve taken the latter approach with a recent customer, going so far as to arrange low-cost manufacturing in China and delivering the finished product to their customer.

A decision to outsource should not be taken lightly. You need to choose a partner that has experience, a reputation for quality, and that can demonstrate ability and knowledge in the field of optoelectronics. You also need to ensure that your partner is accessible at all times. We always assign a dedicated project manager to each customer, which guarantees consistency throughout the process.

If you take all these matters into consideration and choose a quality partner to develop your product, you can often find that your design matures in a different direction, providing you with opportunities you had not previously considered.

And, if you end up with a product that is even better than the one you first conceived on paper, then you’ll find it hard to fault your decision to seek help in the first place.