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What Role do PCB Designers Play in Product Field Service?

At the end of the day, your products are only as good as their in-the-field performance. It doesn’t matter how well they performed in a controlled environment. Customers are paying for something to do a particular job, and they expect a certain level of customer support when things don’t go according to plan.

Take solar panel installation, for instance. A typical preventive maintenance plan might look something like this:

  • Panel integrity

  • Inverter connections and filters

  • Combiner seals

  • Tracker lubrication

  • Module/racking inspections

  • Circuit testing

  • IV curve tracing

  • Thermal imaging

  • Transformer/switchgear

  • HV/MV equipment

So the more complex an electronics powered product or service is, the more likely a business will probably have to implement a field service management plan. Because customer experience is a big part of a business’s success, it’s important for the PCB designer to ensure that electronics are designed with field testing in mind. In this post, we’ll look at the role PCB designers play in product field service.

Field Serviceability Begins With Good PCB Design

Whether it’s a dryer at a laundromat, the HVAC system for a warehouse, or the racks in a server farm, all the best practices of multi-board PCB design apply:

  • PCB Partitioning: By physically grouping components based on functionality and supporting circuitry, and separating these functional blocks onto different boards, your design is inherently easier to test, troubleshoot, and repair.

  • Standardized Connections and Components: Opting for standardized slots and components in your multi-board interconnects, makes it easier for both field service agents and customers to troubleshoot and procure replacement parts.

  • Accessibility vs. Security: Depending on the application, there’s a natural tradeoff between designing enclosures to be durable and secure, and making it easy for service technicians to get in and make repairs. Access panels, choice of screws, and physical clearance must all be factored into enclosure design.

The hot new development in product field service is the use of predictive analytics to monitor equipment performance to optimize preventative maintenance tasks such as replacing a component. PCB designers must also design the monitoring systems that make condition-based maintenance possible.

Repairability vs Proprietary Property Protections

Depending on the industry, you don’t always want the customer to be the one repairing the product. Doing so can lead to voided warranties and safety issues. Worse still, it’s possible for less principled characters to steal proprietary information of your designs, and reverse engineer your product.

While you could take obfuscation measures such as coating your components in epoxy or wiping the markings off ICs, this significantly reduces the repairability and serviceability of your design, and in the case of epoxy, it can even lead to poorer thermal performance.

In these situations it helps to have a repair/service plan in place, supported by a trusted in-house repair crew. They can go out to the field and perform routine maintenance and repairs, troubleshooting problems and swapping out parts in the field.

For more complex issues, your service plan can include procedures for returning a product to your factory floor for more thorough repairs and analysis. This keeps technology under your control and allows you to get detailed feedback that can be used to improve your product.

As PCB designers, it is important to ensure wiring diagrams,bill of materials, circuit plans and other information are organized and readily available to engineers and service personnel — in other words, good old fashioned documentation control.

Decide How Involved You Want To Be

Would you spend hundreds of dollars in labor costs and two dollars in parts to repair something in the field? Of course not. That’s why it’s important to quantify the need for a product service plan.

Sometimes your field service plan can be as simple as having the customer ship a product back for a replacement. Other times it makes sense to take a tiered approach, where customers can replace certain easy to access parts, like the ink cartridges in a printer, with service technicians on hand for more complex problems.

But for the PCB designers, one thing is certain. At the end of the day, a well designed PCB system is easier to troubleshoot for both service technicians and customers. It can be tough keeping serviceability in mind, while accounting for thermal considerations, connectivity, and EMI. Consider using Cadence’s suite of PCB design and analysis tools for your next project.