Intellectual Property, the Other IP

In this post, we’ll discuss Intellectual Property (IP), (not to be confused with Internet Protocol) and how it relates to manufacturing and ownership of electronic designs. Recent involvement with a client that purchased product marketing and manufacturing rights was an eye opener. The client intended to purchase product rights only to discover the purchase agreement didn’t spell out details of what they were buying. Coincidently, much of the same information that makes up a product IP is the ideal package for quotation and manufacturing.

It is not the intention of this article to spell out the legalities of development or product purchase agreements. I hope to lay out some guidelines for what information to expect as a result of new product development or purchasing of marketing and manufacturing rights. Any agreement for developing a new product or purchasing rights to an existing product should include clear legal ownership of the IP.

Regardless of manufacturing quantities or design technology, a complete documentation package is recommended for maintaining quality, product reliability, and long term consistency of manufacturing.  Small or large volume runs produced internally or utilizing a contract manufacturer should rely on a well maintained documentation package.

The following items comprise a complete documentation package for the manufacturing of an electronic assembly or electro-mechanical product. The list should not be considered a one-size-fits-all solution to documentation; requirements for each product vary based on features and complexity. The items as a whole would make up the IP of the product.

Documentation Package Contents:

Electrical Schematic
Determines requirements for circuit functionality, layout, and PCB design. Aids in testing, troubleshooting and repair of units. Used as a basis for circuit modification or feature enhancement for future designs. It’s not always necessary to share the schematic with quoting contract manufacturers but may be needed to accurately estimate test services.

Source Code (firmware)
Custom software written during design, installed and run in the unit’s processor. Determines how inputs and outputs are read and reacted to, in a sense the brains of the device. It’s usually not necessary to share source code during the quotation phase of contract assembly.

Gerber Files
Group of files that are the instructions for manufacturing the bare printed circuit board (PCB).

Bill of Material
Usually spreadsheet format list of all material used in making the assembly. Critical information includes component description, manufacturer, manufacturer part number, and where used. See a blog entry on the subject here.

Drawings for Custom Components
Details for assembly or procurement of non off-the-shelf (OTS) components. Examples might be enclosures, faceplates, cables, or sub-assemblies. Various CAD or Adobe Illustrator® files are usually format for these files. Also consider tooling and drawings for injection molds, aluminum extrusion, and other custom operations and components as part of the package.

Test Procedure
Written procedure describing the equipment and sequence of operation to bench test and confirm proper unit operation.

Assembly Instructions / Drawings
Information detailing assembly operations that may be unique to your assembly, relevant to subassembly production, or important to suppliers. Many times these instructions are developed by the assembler or contract manufacturer, consider these instructions part of the package and try to get copies for your files.

Applicable Standards
Workmanship standard IPC-A610, RoHS / lead-free compliance, and UL certification should be considered. Other IPC, J-Standard, Aerospace, FDA, or wireless standards like FCC or PTCRB may come into play. The standards compliance of your particular product should be spelled out on an assembly drawing or other controlled document in the package.

When sharing documentation with outside parties, I advise using a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Anyone involved in technology based development or manufacturing should be comfortable signing an NDA and demonstrate their commitment to protecting your IP. If at anytime you come across designers, developers, manufacturers, consultants, etc. that are unwilling to enter into an NDA, be tight-lipped and run the other way. No honest, reputable professional should hesitate to sign an NDA. Those of us that have been in development and manufacturing for many years understand the need to protect IP. Whether developing a product or purchasing product rights, be sure to get all of what you pay for and protect your investment.

Thanks for reading, comments, additions and corrections are welcome.