For many established companies, there’s that one product that generates big "whys": why is it all through-hole? Why can’t we move to surface mount technology? Why aren't we redesigning the board? Why do we even sell this? Is John in Engineering to blame?
Legacy products are a niche market for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and contract manufacturers (CMs) alike. While there are many reasons legacy products never undergo a redesign, the most common reasons are simple – the price, the headache, and the engineering required to redesign them. Redesigning a legacy product can evoke painful memories of the long engineering process required for any new product; a process that can be both expensive and headache inducing. Engineering the redesigned product, manufacturing new prototypes, and testing are typical reasons for maintaining a legacy product, especially when that product is no longer a top seller.
The good news? It's much simpler to redesign than you would think! Redesigning doesn’t have to be a hassle and the cost may be negligible in the long run. We’ll give you four reasons to keep the legacy alive and four reasons to start a legacy of your own.
“There are always a million reasons not to do something,” and here are a few reasons it may make sense to keep that older model instead of redesigning it to match modern technology.
- It Is Truly End Of Life (EOL)
- Patents, Legal Fees, And Certifications
- Avoid The Headache
- In-House Assembly
This is obvious, but important. If the product is legitimately on the last run, existing customers have been notified, and a date has been set to cancel the sales and support for that product, don't redesign. However, it’s best to ensure the legacy product meets all three of those conditions – we’ve seen our share of "last runs" on a legacy product turn into hundreds or thousands of assemblies, racking ups tens of thousands of excess dollars spent.
When a product has been granted a design patent (as opposed to a utility patent), redesigning a legacy product is not as straightforward. A redesign would necessitate new patents – and new legal bills. Additionally, if the legacy product needs to be recertified, undergoing an arduous and expensive certification process can put a redesign project well outside a company’s budget.
To be frank, there’s nothing wrong with the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" mentality when it comes to legacy products. If the product is working just fine, there aren’t any allocation issues, and the higher labor costs to run a legacy board are within an acceptable range, the reasons to redesign may be few and far between. We know buyers may disagree on this one but saving a few thousand dollars on labor per year may not be worth the department-wide (or company-wide) endeavor of a product redesign.
If the assembly is all through-hole and assembled in-house, it makes sense to keep it that way if volumes are low. Surface mount offers cost savings and increased throughput, but if investing in expensive surface mount equipment or outsourcing the assembly is not on the roadmap, keep it through-hole. The equipment for through-hole technology is relatively inexpensive. From a solder station for a few hundred dollars to a single wave machine for a hundred thousand, it’s the cheapest equipment in the business and doesn’t require intensive training or a highly specialized skillset to use.
Numerous opportunities present themselves when going into a redesign; here’s what makes it worth it.
- Cost Savings
- Increased Throughput
- Improved Quality
- Quick & Easy
Admittedly, this is an easy one – if the legacy product will be sold or supported for the foreseeable future, redesign is typically the best option. For a simple product, an in-house engineering team can take a few weeks to finalize the new design and an outsourced engineering team can be as inexpensive as a few thousand dollars. That redesign may pay for itself in a single run. For example, one of our customers spent $7,000.00 to redesign their legacy product into a surface mount assembly. The board had more than 150 placements and cost over $50.00 per board in labor. By replacing all but 25 components on the BOM, the manual labor dropped to less than $20.00 per board. After building just 250 boards, they saved enough on labor and component costs to make their $7,000.00 back. To quote our compliance manager, "Don't step over the dollars to pick up the pennies."
Moving to surface mount offers another significant advantage – throughput. If the legacy product is still a great seller, why not improve your throughput to improve sales? The cost savings mentioned above directly correlates to time savings. Before our customer’s redesign, each board took over an hour to produce, inspect, test, and pack. After the redesign, the time to produce, inspect, test, and pack was drastically reduced to 15 minutes (this may sound high, but the remaining through-hole parts have a tight tolerance). From a standard throughput perspective, we were able to produce over 50 boards per day, whereas it was only about eight per day before. If you need throughput, through-hole won't get you there.
Briefly mentioned above, quality inspection on through-hole legacy products is time-consuming and imperfect. With the advent of pick & place machines and AOI, quality is drastically improved, and inspection can be done in a fraction of the time while checking for more potential defects. The problems for quality inspection on through-hole are plenty, but the two main difficulties are angles and eye fatigue. AOI can inspect some through-hole components, but inconsistent preparation, soldering, or rotation make AOI angles insufficient, meaning you must still manually review them. This is where eye fatigue sets in. If you have ever inspected a board with over 100 placements manually for hours at a time, it’s incredibly difficult to detect every defect. SMT makes it as easy as ABC.
Redesign can be fast and uncomplicated. Almost all designs can be redesigned in the same footprint if you want a fit, form, function replacement in two to four weeks. You can also shrink the size of the unit altogether if you're going to revamp your product. The PCBA redesign needs minimal testing as well, as it will serve the same purpose. If you’re worried about the prototype phase, don't be. Redesign of a legacy product is as simple as finding new parts for an old design and shouldn't require a complete prototype phase.
Redesigning that old PCBA can be a substantial step in future growth and revenue, but it comes with several factors that need to be considered. If you are unsure whether your redesign project is worth the cost, give us a call or send us an email. We have several engineers you can start a conversation with and quotes are always free!