Treat programmable hardware design as a high level system task - Embedded.com

Treat programmable hardware design as a high level system task

We're all aware, some of us painfully so, of the pervading effects of globalization in the electronics industry. Fueled by the restructuring effects of the economic recession, the highly competitive world market means that the electronic product design you develop is likely to coexist in the market with a low-cost equivalent that could have been designed by anyone, from any part of the globe.

As emerging nations educate and tool up towards engineering-based economies, the number of competitors for a given electronic product is now extremely difficult to anticipate. It is however likely to be large. For those developing products in the traditionally tech-focused countries, a competing device will often appear to come from nowhere, and in some instances, may be disturbingly similar to their own.

But that competing product is not necessarily any better. As new players in the global electronics village develop and ramp up product manufacturing, the key part of the process ” innovative design ” is arguably still in its infancy. The effect is that a large proportion of those electronic product designs tend to be derivative, for the moment.

This situation can and will change from a global perspective, where a region's mass engineering capabilities alone will not guarantee success. Electronic design knowledge, techniques and systems are relatively easy to acquire, and as competition ramps up, innovative system design will become the crucial differentiator amongst comparable products in the market.

Commodity products, commodity design
Wherever you're located in this brave new world of mass design and manufacture, the complex mixture of design target factors, including time-to-market, cost and manufacturability are certainly important. But focusing on those alone is unlikely to deliver the required edge that provides sustainable product differentiation in the market.

An indication of this is the world-scale revolution in the way many products, or key elements of those products, are now designed, manufactured and distributed. The effect of this change is all around you, in the form of low-cost electronic products that have now become 'commodity' items. Irrespective of their development origins, they have been transformed from a unique product to a universal, low-cost product that applies to a worldwide market.

Whether it's a portable music player, industrial controller or a display sub-assembly, globalization ” the move to a single, highly-competitive world marketplace ” creates an environment where commodity products pour onto the market from the most cost-effective manufacturing regions. For both big and small companies worldwide this also opens the opportunity to outsource cost-sensitive processes, typically manufacturing and distribution, on a global scale.

Indeed, the move to 'off-shoring' and the general trend to global product commoditization have generated entire categories of products that can only be differentiated from each other on price. In the consumer category, low cost DVD players are a prime example. All are equivalently competent, as is the experience for the user, and they can only compete in the market on price alone.

Focusing on low-cost manufacturing as a path to competitive success leads to a direct confrontation with the realities of today's global market. Only one manufacturer at a time can deliver the perceived advantage of offering a product at the lowest price, and it's only a matter of time before an even cheaper alternative arrives on the market to hijack that product differentiator.

Furthermore, the drive to reduce costs for a price-competitive market edge can only compromise the quality of design content, hardware and most importantly, the level of unique innovation that can be instilled in a product. It's not really worth that concession for a short term market advantage.

Low cost manufacture is a basic requirement of doing business rather than a sustainable competitive edge in today's industry, and the same can be said for short product development times. Reducing time to market is traditionally considered as a path to competitive success, where beating your competitors to the market will deliver you a critical, dominating edge. By nature though, this is a temporary achievement because just like a cost advantage, it will quickly be negated as others enter the market.

Getting to market early is nevertheless important, because it delivers an initial market penetration that can be crucial. But today, this alone is not enough to maintain that market position. There's even a good chance that the design will very quickly be recreated somewhere else in the world and appear as a competitor. The irony of competing against your own product is palpable and certainly disturbing.

In any case, conventional thinking in today's market suggests that cost and development time are valid product differentiators. And on the surface this seems a reasonable strategy, but these factors should not be confused with real product differentiators that are sustainable. The reality is they are important windows of opportunity, or even company 'survival drivers', rather than factors that deliver a long-term competitive advantage in today's market, or that of the future.

Real competitive value
If real and sustainable product differentiation does not come from churning out low-cost products in every shorter timeframes, a good strategy is looking to towards the customers that use that product. As simple as that may sound, from a design viewpoint it represents the enormous challenge of capturing the way a product looks, feels and functions from the user perspective “the customer's user experience.

Taking this definition apart, a product's look and feel ” the form of the design ” make it stand out from its competitors through a unique identity. While this is important, its value as a sustainable differentiator is diluted by the fact that it's relatively easy to emulate.

Where the true long-term value lies is in the functional aspects of the design, which determine the way it operates and interacts with the customer, and the way it connects the customer and the rest of the world

The connectivity aspect is particularly important, since as is already becoming evident, the next generation of electronic products won't be just stand-alone devices. Rather, they will be smarter products that connect to external services via the internet and networked systems. This approach adds sustainable value to the usefulness of the product, and in the process, delivers an enhanced customer experience and helps create a long-term relationship between the customer and the product vendor.

While many of the services that make this approach possible lie outside of the product design itself, like the back-end servers and the features they offer, the product's functional intelligence must ultimately support those capabilities. This in turn means implementing as much functionality as possible in the soft domain, using traditional software and ” increasingly ” programmable hardware.

The benefits of focusing on the soft elements of a design are profound and ongoing. Software is inherently more difficult to copy than a product's hardware, it can be easily updated during and after the design process, and is a powerful but flexible way to define product functionality. Perhaps more significantly, those 'soft' benefits also apply to programmable hardware, allowing a product's competitive IP ” and the crucial user experience ” to be defined almost entirely in the soft domain.

In a global competitive design sense, this approach offers the potential for design innovation to prosper. Unique product designs that stand out by delivering a desirable user experience and additional value are easier to create, and maintain. This however is predicated on the ability to view and tackle product design as one overall task, with the focus on soft design, rather than in the conventional way as a collection of separate, individual processes.

Unifying soft design
Approaching electronic product design as a single high-level task is possible if hardware, software and programmable hardware design is encapsulated in one system that uses a single model of the design data (Figure 1, below ). That single data store becomes the sole contact point for company-wide systems, and allows for real time design interaction between the domains.

Figure 1. A platform-level unified design environment brings all design processes together within a single application that uses a single model of the design data.

Such a system allows all design stages to use a common design interface and model of the design data across all domains, making product development one cohesive and connected task. The level of abstraction of the design process can then be raised across the entire design process, allowing designers to take a high-level, soft-centric approach to the overall product design.

Using schematic or flow chart graphical design interfaces, IP blocks, software routines and I/O systems can be quickly combined to explore and develop innovative product functionality ” without being distracted by the need for low-level engineering.

Typical tasks like implementing a USB stage in a design are vastly simplified. The USB stage is likely to have elements that need to be incorporated in all domains ” connectors and interface hardware in the physical space, bus interfaces in programmable hardware, plus drivers and protocol layers in the application software domain.

In practice the single pool of design data, which includes library parts, holds a single model of the USB block that incorporates all elements. The model can be simply dropped into the design, using a high-level graphic-based capture system, where it is manifested in all domains regardless of their level of design abstraction. IP cores or saved designs can be used (and re-used) in the same way.

Ultimately, the benefits of using a unified development environment that accesses a single model of the design data flow to all aspects of design. The high level design possibilities permeate all domains and enable a practical software-centric approach to electronic system development.

Creative prototyping
To create a complete concept to product prototyping environment, the singular design system can be coupled with a low-cost FPGA hardware development platform that includes support hardware, common I/O systems and features plug-in peripheral boards that can be changed to suit the design application.

This could provide much more than just the usual basic ability to program the on-board FPGA. By implementing intelligent communication between this hardware platform and the high-level design software, the system could directly interact with all parts of the development board. The peripherals can then be swapped on the fly, with the software automatically reconfiguring the interface layers and configuration files as required.

With this setup, the complete development system, including the physical hardware, act as the one design environment. But most importantly, all engineers ” including hardware-savvy software developers ” can use high-level systems to develop and explore design options in real time, and on real hardware.

That hardware could conceivably become the final product in some circumstances ” such as low product production runs. This places larger number of designers in the unique position of being able to rapidly develop a complete product, or in the least, a proof of concept device.

Taking a high-level product development approach with such a system means that crucial design decisions can be made much later in the design cycle, and the defining soft elements of the design can be updated at any time ” even after the product has been deployed in the field.

The immediate hardware decisions are removed from the early design process, freeing designers to focus of the soft aspects of the design (embedded hardware and software) that define its function and capabilities. The hardware will ultimately be selected to accommodate the needs of the design's soft elements, rather than the other way around.

Simplifying the embedded hardware system and design processes in this way means that complex processor-based embedded systems can be created and changed easily. The division between hardware and software is more flexible, allowing the partition to be moved throughout the design cycle rather than be locked at the beginning of the embedded development process.

The low-level hardware complexity is reduced, or even removed from the design decisions and processes, allowing a designer to focus on creating a product's unique functionality. It's that element that defines the product user's experience and the competitive value of the design. And in the world electronics market where a design's uniqueness has become vital, the ability to apply creativity and innovation to the design process is paramount.

Rob Evans is a Technical Specialist and technical editor at Altium Limited. He has more than 20 years of experience in the electronics design and publishing industry, and studied Electronic Engineering at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.Rob can be contacted at rob.evans@altium.com.

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