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During AltiumLive in San Diego, I met Dugan M. Karnazes, an associate electrical engineer and PCB designer at Amway. The company is famous for selling nutritional supplements and soap, but apparently Amway has been busy diversifying over the years.
I was interested in finding out more about Amway’s electronics development. Dugan sat down with me to discuss his role at Amway, and how this company grew into an $8 billion global giant.
Andy Shaughnessy: Dugan, you design circuit boards at Amway. Many of us would be surprised to learn that Amway designs PCBs.
Dugan Karnazes: Circuit board designer is one of my responsibilities, yes.
Shaughnessy: Give a little bit about your background and how you got to Amway. What does Amway do with circuit boards?
Karnazes: When people think about Amway, a lot of times they think of soap or nutrition, but what a lot of people don't know is we actually have a huge durables business. The portion of that where I work is in water and air filtration systems. Amway's a really big company and it's in my hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan. The world headquarters is in Ada, which is right next to it.
I did my degrees in physics and electrical engineering. I came in to work for Amway R&D and realized we were spending a lot of money with these external companies to develop electronics. The way that we wanted to proceed was to bring some of that work more in-house.
Our engineers are now getting into the board-level design where we’re doing the whole system and it's really powerful being able to have the designers who do the boards, the electrical engineers, and our firmware engineers all operating right next to each other. The 3D capabilities of Altium have really been a big hit with our mechanical engineers, as well, because we didn't have the ability before this software.
Shaughnessy: I didn't know that Amway had PCB designers until Happy Holden mentioned it a few months ago. Happy also told us that LEGO has PCB designers. You just never know.
Karnazes: Actually, I met Happy at AltiumLive last year. After talking, I invited him to come and speak to our engineering team. I founded our Altium users group. It's a collective of our electronics designers and engineers. He told us all about HDI methods and technologies. Happy just has a wealth of information and it was really nice to hear. We just let him talk and do his thing, and we asked questions as he spoke. It was a pleasure having Happy over.
Shaughnessy: How did you end up choosing Altium? Why does it work for you guys?
Karnazes: We implemented it about two years ago. We chose it for the 3D capabilities and because it seems to be becoming an industry standard. A lot of designers we've talked to say that's what they use and they have had a good experience with. And the price point was right. We weren't going to spend $100,000 just starting our system up. It’s worked out pretty well.
Shaughnessy: How many engineers do you have?
Karnazes: Oh, let's see. In my building, we have about 20 electrical engineers.
Shaughnessy: So you all just got into doing circuit board design about two years ago. Before that, did you have a design bureau do the designs for you?
Karnazes: Yes. That was getting a little pricey.
Shaughnessy: How did the transition go? Who was leading that change?
Karnazes: It's a group effort over here. There was a consensus among the engineers that we wanted to get more into the designs and have more of that design feel. I can't alone claim credit for bringing it in. There was another one of our engineers who really led the charge and I did everything I could to help him move it along. Now, since we invested in that tool, our management's been really supportive in sending people to training courses like this to get a grasp of it and become fluent in industry trends. That's really what I'm looking for: Where's the industry going? What are the challenges that are coming down the pike for our company? How can we really leverage those strengths?
Shaughnessy: That's great to see you bringing it in-house. We just covered Whelen Engineering, a company in New Hampshire that builds emergency lighting. They were sending their boards to be built in China, but they started fabricating their own boards and they're saving millions each year and creating American jobs. So, bringing it in-house is the thing to do.
Karnazes: Yes. The other big advantage to bringing that in-house: Our turnaround time is much, much quicker. We can go from idea to boards in hand in a couple of weeks. We didn't have that ability before. It's really accelerated our product design cycles.
Shaughnessy: So, what kind of technology? Is it fairly high-tech?
Karnazes: We’re investigating some of the more advanced technologies, but for now most of our stuff is all surface mount. There's still some through-hole components on the older boards.
Shaughnessy: You said they're for filtration units, right?
Karnazes: Yes. The eSpring and Atmosphere, our air and water purifier units.
Shaughnessy: So, you need those to be high-reliability, right? Those things have got to last.
Karnazes: Oh, yes. Reliability is extremely important to us. The way Amway's business model works is that, when you buy a product, you're not buying it from a store; you're buying it from someone you know. So that person's personal reputation is now attached to that product. As designers, we take that very seriously, because if this product breaks, it's now our business owner’s reputation that is damaged. We don't want to see that happen. We want people to be proud of the products they sell. So, we design our durable goods for a 10-year lifespan.
Shaughnessy: Do you run any signal integrity tests?
Karnazes: We do. That's the skill set we're looking to develop even further, especially as rise times are getting faster. Even if you're doing low-speed stuff, with these rise times, you have to take those matters into account.
Shaughnessy: Is there anything else you want to talk that we haven't covered?
Karnazes: I’m just looking forward to continuing the conference. Last year, I found it to be very valuable and I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of this goes.
Shaughnessy: It’s been great talking with you, Dugan. Thank you.
Karnazes: Thank you, Andy.