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Buy versus Build: Understanding the Total Cost of Embedded Design

By Anthony J. Lockwood

Dear Desktop Engineering Reader:

National InstrumentsWhen I was living in the forests of New Hampshire, I knew this guy who got the notion that he could design and build his own house from scratch. He cleared trees for a driveway and house site. Then he dug a cellar hole with his backhoe. But after setting his foundation forms, he realized that he would never finish the job with his 9 cubic foot portable mixer. He called in the cement company. “You gotta know your limits,” he explained, “sometimes it’s cheaper and faster to call in the pros.”

Same goes for whatever it is that you design. Take embedded systems. When you’re developing an embedded system, the tricky angle is knowing which parts you should design and when to incorporate off-the-shelf components. Note I said “should” and not “can.” But how do you figure that out? Today’s Check It Out offers a bunch of assistance and an embedded link to a nifty calculator that can help you come to the right answer for you.

The short of it is that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this sort of dilemma. See, some outfits opt to design and build a complete or nearly complete custom solution. This has its pluses. For example, you can get a customized final product and optimize costs. And its minuses: specification changes can cause lengthy and expensive delays, you need a large team of domain experts, and your design, validate, and manufacturing cycles are long. You might not be able to upgrade the final product easily.

Alternatively,  you can build your system with an off-the-shelf platform. The plus side here is that you slash design and validation cycles dramatically and get to market faster. Your design team can be smaller, since so little time needs to be spent developing things like low-level software. Upgrading a design should be easier. On the minus side, this increases the cost of goods sold and you’ll probably pay for features you don’t need or want in your design.

In today’s white paper, National Instruments looks at the benefits and drawbacks of both approaches. It provides real-world customer information and data on numerous cost differences between building a custom solution versus using off-the-shelf tools NI has garnered over the years. Embedded links take you to customer stories.

The coolest part of the paper is the embedded link to what NI calls the “Graphical System Design Build vs. Buy Calculator.”  The calculator shows the potential financial differences between building a custom solution versus buying an off-the-shelf system. It’s simple to use. You enter some details on your current or future project. Among these are unit volumes, number of engineers deployed, and product price. The calculator then estimates such items as your development costs and time to market.

This paper is a good, quick 10-page read filled with all sorts of details. The calculator is fast, fun, and informative. Between the two, you’ll get some great guidance to mull over. Hit the link and see for yourself.

Thanks,  Pal.—Lockwood

Anthony J. Lockwood
Editor at Large, Desktop Engineering

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About the Author

Anthony J. Lockwood's avatar
Anthony J. Lockwood

Anthony J. Lockwood is Digital Engineering’s founding editor. He is now retired. Contact him via [email protected].

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