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The benefits of using a module over a component-based design

17 March 2022

Designers often avoid selecting a module over a component-based design due to the higher upfront module costs. However, time to market can increase with chip-level design, and the additional testing, certification and obsolescence costs incurred can mount up quickly.

Geoff North, Business Development Manager at Solid State Supplies, gives the following considerations when choosing between a module or a component-based approach.

Time to market

Using a module enables original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) rapidly to develop prototypes to go to market. Modules are compatible with small production runs as they don’t require specific manufacturing equipment or tooling. They are a plug-and-play solution that is quick and easy to integrate. Unlike a component-based design, they often don’t need calibration or additional electronics, making them easier to integrate into production processes. They are popular with smaller companies and start-ups which may not have the hardware expertise available in-house to adopt a component-based design. 

Validation and certification

Adopting a component-based approach offers designers the most flexibility as they can choose the layout which works best for their design and housing. However, in doing so, they are also committing to sourcing and validating all the board components to make sure that they are compatible.

OEMs should also consider whether they want the complex, ongoing design maintenance task of going chip down. When using a module, these responsibilities fall to the module manufacturer. Modules often come pre-certified and pre-tested, saving designers time and money – not only during designing but during the lifetime of the end product. Consideration should be given to mitigating risk in complex designs which are more complicated to respin. Should a redesign become necessary for any reason, it’s much simpler to respin a carrier board than a custom chip-level design.

Modules are particularly useful if they are intended for applications with RF circuitry which requires additional certification. This is already covered off in a module but is the designer’s responsibility in a component-led design. Although laying down an RF design has become easier (with reference designs more readily available and technical distributors often able to advise), manufacturers may still require multiple resources such as RF designers and EMS consultancy during the design process. This approach is only suitable for high-volume production and not so desirable for low volume or prototyping.

Supply chain issues and obsolescence/end of life

The longevity of supply offered by module manufacturers gives designers peace of mind. Manufacturers will not only guarantee availability for a period of time, but the BoM will remain fixed as it is their responsibility to provide a form, fit and functional (FFF) alternative for any EOL components. As supply chain issues are a particular concern recently due to the pandemic, this is important to bear in mind. 

With a component-based design, the designer is responsible for managing obsolescence (OBS) and end of life (EOL). If your SoM has an ARM-based processor with 300-400 components, you will need to manage all these components for OBS and EOL, so you need to be mindful that you might need additional time to source, test and validate alternatives. Your BoM could increase as a result.

Variance

A common concern with using a module is that the functionality is set by the module manufacturer and is not fine-tuned to your specific application. In effect, you are paying for functionality that you might not even need. However, there is now often a variance of modules available from module manufacturers. The customisation here will cost more but the onus is on the module supplier to take responsibility for the BoM and certifications. Some module manufacturers now also supply their own security frameworks (such as TrustfenceTM from Digi) and their cloud platform which designers won’t get from a component-based supplier.

Design support

Software support is another key consideration for designers. Module manufacturers may offer a better board support package with more a comprehensive bootloader and driver integration that can be used immediately. This might not be the case with a component-based approach meaning you will need to allocate time to carry out debugging on both the software and hardware design, and also consider ongoing software maintenance.

Conclusion

Perceived lower BoM cost drives the popularity of component-based designs in consumer applications, but hidden costs may mean that a modular approach is in fact competitive. Experienced and knowledgeable distributors can help advise you on your approach and may also offer additional support, such as the services of their RF team.


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