The mass-market opportunities for most electronic products has had a major impact on our industry, and it has been a somewhat recursive, self-sustaining one. We need ever-higher volumes to support the costly R&D, process development, fab facilities, and overall enormous industry infrastructure. In turn, these factors combine to allow us to product final products (ICs, passives, other components) at lower cost and certainly much more attractive performance/price ratios.
But when I visit companies which are designing and building end products, I find the most interesting ones are those who are involved with low-volume or even single-unit production. Often, these are highly specialized, custom projects for interesting applications, such as a wet lab for the Mars Phoenix Lander, or a field instrument designed to stress a mechanical sample in various ways (temperature extremes, mechanical force), and then measure changes in key physical properties. In these situations, while BOM cost is an issue, it is nowhere near as dominant as it is for the OEM designing a cell phone, for example.
The engineers working on the lower-volume design have to consider tooling, custom versus semi-custom versus standard parts and assemblies, and even manual-labor assembly issues. While they can't take advantage of the benefits of higher volumes and amortization of up-front costs--whether they are non-recurring engineering (NRE) or tooling-related-- they are defined by these factors, either.
When a design team has what might seem at first to be a burden, namely, to produce just one or a few of their product, it is also a luxury. It changes the entire engineering-design perspective and is in many ways very liberating. Think about it yourself: how does designing a single, custom unit differ in fundamental designer mindset, planning, NRE versus BOM cost, resources that can be called upon, and other parameters?
And what's more of an engineer's traditional , problem-solving challenge: to worry about pennies on the BOM and in assembly costs, or to custom tailor one or a few pieces to be just right, with less concern about the specialized demands of volume production? Without doubt, high-volume, mass-market design brings its own challenges and engineering innovation, but with a very different context and perspective which some engineers find is a challenge to rise, but others feel just drags them down.♦