Custom Products: Customer Owned and Controlled

Sometimes custom product design projects come with strings attached. In one recent case, a manufacturer of industrial controls found that the "strings" binding them to a previous design and assembly partner had become unbearable.

The original concept had been simple, align with a company offering design and manufacturing and cut design cost by agreeing to a single source agreement. The problem was that the customer didn't own its electronics design. And, over time that translated to higher costs for engineering changes and manufacturing.

Milwaukee Electronics' design team provided the expertise and service that enabled this customer to remove its dependence on a single source and take ownership and control of a product that is key to its business success.

The Challenge

A potential customer came to Milwaukee Electronics with a problem. Their gas process control system was old, lacked functionality and was not user-friendly. And, since they didn't own the design, they were stuck with their design and manufacturing partner.

The current industrial control has been manufactured and sold for over (10) years. This control features (4) 7-segment LED displays that are used to display 10-digit numbers by cycling through the digit sets. The operator is forced to write down the various screen values to reconstruct the final 10-digit number. This control also features (5) membrane keypad buttons and (6) LEDs to assist the user during programming and data extraction. This control is outdated and not user-intuitive.

The customer was locked into a relationship since they didn't own design. There was no pressure on the supplier to lower engineering or printed circuit board assembly cost because they were unable to move the manufacturing documentation, which further hurt market competitiveness. High engineering change costs were limiting the amount of feature changes the customer felt was feasible.

The Process

Milwaukee Electronics was contacted to discuss the next generation control. The customer indicated this new control design needed to be superior to the less functional control while maintaining full backwards compatibility to allow for future field retrofit and replacements. The customer also provided our team with a number of concepts and ideas for the user interface.

To limit the initial development cost investment, Milwaukee Electronics proposed a two-phase approach. In phase one, we issued a quote for a feasibility study to allow for research of alternative display types and sizes as well as user interface options. The deliverable was a detailed product specification and concept drawings and included a demonstration LCD module that mimicked the final display option that Milwaukee Electronics would end up proposing in the specification.

After specification was agreed upon, we quoted the phase two development with a full electronic hardware design, software design, mechanical design, pcb design and layout prototype unit tooling and build, and product verification testing.

Our team developed a superior control that features a 4.3 inch color active matrix LCD panel including a touchscreen. The system firmware, running on a microcontroller, is controlled by a real-time operating system capable of controlling various graphics options as well as numerous device types such as USB, Modbus and Ethernet. Additional input and output interfaces were added to this control while maintaining the same physical size envelope as the current board.

We also identified a Windows-based graphic screen generator program that allows the customer to construct the basic system display screens, graphics, text fonts and button locations. This program then compiles these display screens into code, compatible with our own custom-written microcontroller firmware that can be uploaded into the final application program with minimal engineering design time. This has significantly reduced the customer's engineering development costs.

This control requires a minimum 50K hours of life for the LCD backlight. The control operates (24) hours a day and the customer suggested including an option that disabled the backlight at times when there was no detection of an operator using the touch panel to achieve the backlight life requirement. Our team felt this would be perceived as a disadvantage over the previous control's ability to display operating data during run time because it used of LED numeric displays. As an alternative, we designed the hardware to pulse the LCD backlight in preparation for dimming. A sample program was written to allow the customer to experiment with various LCD backlight levels to obtain a number of illumination levels that will then be used to calculate final LCD display lifetime of the product.

The Solution

This new, feature rich, industrial control stayed within the customer product cost target. The operator interface and display screens are significantly improved and make user programmability simple and clean.

Milwaukee Electronics has eliminated our customer's fears of being held hostage to a manufacturing company. Because a complete documentation package is issued at the end of the project, our customer now has the ability to take this electronic design anywhere in the world to have manufactured. We aren't afraid to take a "no strings" approach because we've found that designs that are developed and then manufactured by Milwaukee Electronics typically result in long-term customer relationships. Our commitment to excellent service, product life cycle support and our ability to provide continuing solutions for next generation and/or additional product lines are key reasons our customers see us a long-term partner.