The era of the Smart BOM

Wed, 06/05/2013 - 1:38pm
John Hoeschele, Marketing Communications Manager, Anaren, Inc.,

In the mid- to late-decades of the 20th century, the job description of the average, workaday electrical engineer included what might be termed “basic bill of materials” management – BOM 1.0, if you will. Essentially, BOM 1.0  involved weeks if not months of specifying, sourcing, and documenting component and materials choices with a view to striking the best balance possible between three main variables: (1) performance characteristics demanded of the application; (2) any and all design constraints dictated by largely tangible, physical characteristics such as package size, material choices, power budget, and thermal properties that would need to be accounted for; and (3) component pricing relative to an overall cost or margin target imposed on the project from middle  management who, in turn, had derived the target based on some calculus from the corner office.

The 1980s saw the emergence of something very like a BOM 2.0, which included a range of new BOM boxes to check. One common denominator among these was a shift toward the inclusion of intangible “value added” attributes like richer documentation and increased application assistance, while others focused on risk mitigation — like demanding a vender’s compliance with QC-related standards (e.g. ISO, ASTM), adherence to environmental standards like RoHS, participation in vender quality assurance programs, and even willingness and ability to support VMI to ensure a component’s continuity of supply. (The emergence and reliance on reference designs, which save time and likewise mitigated some of the risks associated with choosing a new component or material, also became more of a staple of the BOM management process during this period.)

Enter BOM 3.0 — or the era of the “smart BOM” — where today’s electrical engineers charged with identifying and due diligence with regard to their company’s component and materials choices must consider — and, if viewed positively, can benefit enormously from — the next generation of BOM considerations.

Make mine a module
From a BOM perspective, perhaps the most encouraging trend for eOEMs trying to add functionality to their products by sourcing tens of disparate components — each of which must hit its own performance, repeatability, and quality-control specs — is the ability to eliminate ‘components’ altogether by choosing a modularized solution wherein all the discrete components and other ancillary are already combined into a single, proven, SMT unit that just needs to be solder down.  
One instance of elegant modularization, this one from the optic space, is the family of easily integrated CMOS and CCD digital imaging modules from a company such as Germany’s Jenoptik ( Device manufacturers looking to tack on card-reader access or security might save time, space, and headaches with an OEM module from HID (, which bundles up relevant MCUs, encryption, various I/O options, and more. And the list goes on, with ‘ready made’ modules available to the smart BOM’er for nearly any distinct function you care to name.

Put simply, if it’s not your core competency, why embark on the very risky road of chip-down approach to integration — when you can simply source a module and then spend your time in leveraging your core expertise and creating value and differentiation in the areas where you’re good.

One example can be found in the arena of RF function, where Anaren Integrated Radio (AIR) modules combine a low-power RF chip from Texas Instruments, one balun, one crystal, an antenna option, and approximately nine other discrete components necessary to add basic transceiver functionality onto a surface mount board measuring as little as 9 mm x 12 mm x 2.5 mm. While the $9.99 base price for these units may be high for large OEMs who are able to support an RF department and source/develop their own discrete radio for a couple dollars, for smaller OEMs, the AIR module can save countless hours and lines on a BOM. (And that’s not even counting the years of RF-specific expertise, pre-testing, pre- certification to RF emission standards, production software development and other intangibles that are tucked under the unit’s shield.)

Development kit included
Moving beyond the datasheets, app notes, reference designs, and even in-person tech support that once formed the basis of basic BOMs (still important, of course) – today’s electrical engineers can develop a BOM and concurrently test the efficacy of their BOM candidates in real time, thanks to the vast number of plug-and-play development kits and evaluation boards available from component suppliers.

Inspired by the bread-boards engineers once developed on their own, and then driven by the “Tinkertoy” (aka: “Erector Set,” Legos, etc.) mindset, today’s high-flexibility development tools offer communication port, power, sensor, pin-out, connector, and other options that can eliminate huge swaths of design time, trial, and error.

Most of the buzz these days is being generated by underlying development platforms such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and the Texas Instruments’ LaunchPad environment — onto which literally hundreds of evaluation modules and boards are being snapped even as you read this. The aforementioned AIR modules, for instance, can be obtained in BoosterPack kits that can be installed, fired-up, and test-driven within seconds on TI’s LaunchPad development tool.

In short, the dividing line that once existed between a traditional, written BOM — and the physical development stage — is effectively and permanently blurred. With the advent and increasing ubiquity of development kits, you can now justify and prove-out a component or subsystem choice in a two-hour test right on your desktop – with benefits ranging from better use of your increasingly scarce engineering time, more reliable and better performing solutions, and faster time to market. And a faster route to revenues.

Hardly just hardware, anymore
While physical characteristics such as footprints, formats, and material choices remain critical considerations for any engineer winnowing down his/her options – management of BOM 3.0 means accounting for an expanding menu of new, “soft” factors not previously on the list of criteria for weighing a ‘hardware’ choice.

A perfect example of this is the proliferation of knowledge-based, user ‘communities’ brought to you by folks who used to just promote hardware. At the distributor level of the supply chain, for instance, one can have a wide range of BOM-stage questions and concerns adequately answered at online communities like Farnell-Premier’s Element 14, RS Electronics’ DesignSpark, or DigiKey’s TechXchange. While at the component-manufacturer level, analogous instances of the trend include Texas Instruments popular E2E platform – or at a smaller scale, the ZigBee ‘wiki’ that even a smaller company like Anaren has been able to establish. Also under this umbrella might be the bundling of firmware or software with components or modularized solutions, either entirely free of charge or at a very minimal cost.

To summarize, not unlike the stunning and myriad technology choices available to today’s engineers, today’s “smart BOMs” are at once far more complicated — and much more elegant — than their predecessors.


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