Why reinvent the wheel? - Embedded.com

Why reinvent the wheel?

It's an exciting time to be a gadget geek. From cell phones to multimedia players and HDTVs, consumer electronics (CE) devices are performing a wider range of tasks than anyone ever thought possible — all while getting smaller and easier on the wallet. Yet, there's the challenge for CE device designers. When new generations of products are introduced as often as every quarter, CE designers require a product development strategy that is flexible, fast, and low on cost.

“Design once, make many” is an approach that the highly competitive automotive industry has embraced to address market expectations. Auto manufacturers start with one chassis design and change the bodywork, engines, and trim to create four-door sedans, sporty coupes, SUVs and minivans. To further reduce development time and costs, they carry their common chassis design through multiple models and several model design refreshes.

There's no reason why this powerful strategy, carried out with programmable logic devices (PLDs), could not help the pressure-filled CE industry thrive amidst shrinking market windows. A PLD-based platform can provide CE developers a foundation for rapid, low-cost product innovation and evolution. This can give designers the ammunition they need to react in real time to customer feedback and market changes; tailor features of a basic design for different users, regions, or price points; develop differentiated features before the competition; and maintain the first-mover advantage that is so critical to CE market success. While there are alternatives, only a PLD-based strategy can give CE developers the agility to thrive in an ever-changing, sometimes difficult market environment.

Maximizing Profit in the Digital Consumer Age
While CE revenue has been rising at a rapid clip, profits have not followed suit. It's an unsettling issue for the industry, and improvement depends in part on having a cost-conscious yet agile product development process that gets products to market before the competition. Application-specific standard product (ASSP) and application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) devices are known to provide a low-cost, fixed platform for product design. But using these devices does not come without disadvantages. With ASSPs, product differentiation is difficult. Plus, ASSPs are not always available for the most current standards and logic functions. Custom ASIC development, on the other hand, can be time-intensive and costly — with nonrecurring engineering costs exceeding $500,000, year-long development cycles, and the need to await silicon re-spins for design changes. Add PLDs to the mix, however, and a new level of flexibility emerges. For example, ASICs or ASSPs can be used to deliver the basic system functionality. To quickly incorporate the latest in-demand features to a design, low-cost FPGAs or CPLDs complete the programmable platform for product development.

Figure 1: With competitive pressures and consumer expectations both at high levels, CE designers must innovate at a rapid pace in order for their businesses to thrive.

Low-cost PLDs are already being used in a variety of high-volume consumer-oriented products, from digital TVs and DVD players to handheld media players, set-top boxes, “smart home” networks, and computer peripherals. PLD flexibility serves CE product developers by letting them rapidly develop new features simply by modifying the chip's programming in their design. This enables multiple versions of the same product for different segments at introduction, gives them an option of providing new features in response to changing market demands with a minimum of additional engineering effort, and helps them to quickly deliver upgrades to existing products in the field. With a PLD-based strategy, CE product developers can continuously and cost-effectively refresh their product lines and provide differentiating capabilities. These capabilities can include video or audio enhancements, security functions, user-programmable functions, or even completely different modes of operation.

Not only can a platform-based product design strategy help CE designers achieve rapid, low-cost innovation, it can also generate intangible yet potentially lucrative benefits. By enabling product differentiation, for example, such a strategy can bring increased margins. It can help keep a brand name in front of the customer. It can also help prevent obsolescence in a product design. Finally, designing with a reusable electronic platform demonstrates the product roadmap, putting the company in a favorable light to the investment community.

Fueling Faster Product Development with PLDs
Several Top 10 video and display manufacturers have already integrated the “design once, make many” approach into their product development strategies. Walk into any large CE retailer, and find a dazzling array of HDTVs and other products from each of these leading manufacturers. While each product is unique in size, functionality, or some other feature, each was born from the same fundamental design and simply reprogrammed using PLDs.

Other CE manufacturers are also reaping the benefits of PLD-based development platforms. For example, when designing its TM8100 mobile radio, Christchurch, New Zealand-based Tait Electronics Ltd. used Altera' FPGAs to accommodate third-party integration and provide the foundation for several other analog and digital products. With future product requirements unknown, it was important for Tait to have the architectural flexibility that a programmable-platform strategy allows. In the process, the manufacturer gained advantages related to cost, time-to-market, processing power, component packaging, and supplier relationships. What's more, having a range of FPGA package options helps Tait meet customer requirements as radios continue to call for more functionality in smaller packages. The TM8100 radio has exceeded company expectations on the system integration front, and three follow-on products were developed using its platform design. Typically, the company has taken two to three years to launch a single product; with the programmable-platform strategy, Tait created four products in about four years.

“With proper architectural design, we realized significant time savings in subsequent models,” explains Tony Berggren, technology leader with Tait. “The use of the FPGA development tools' project revision control meant that, along with easily configurable I/O, the same core design solution could be compiled for differing product platforms and hardware requirements. Overall, we estimated that the savings we gleaned in both flexibility of design and time-to-market outweighed the hard costs required to work with ASIC technology development.”

Blaupunkt, the German vehicle audio and navigation systems developer, used Altera PLDs to shorten development time for its TravelPilot Rome automotive navigation system. “Combining a programmable product strategy with excellent development support shortened our design time by six months and made it possible for us to meet the demanding schedule we set for the TravelPilot Rome,” said Georg Sandhaus, Blaupunkt's director of system engineering. “We also reduced design complexity by replacing multiple standard components with a single device, which eased our development effort and increased our product quality and reliability.”

How the HDTV Market Addresses Aggressive Growth

Figure 2. Typical consumer electronics product life cycle

Whether a designer is at the concept, emerging market, aggressive growth, or mature market stage of the CE product life cycle, a PLD-based strategy can meet the associated challenges. For example, at the concept stage, design engineers need to determine whether their great product idea would have any “legs” in the market. With a PLD in the product design, designers can prototype their concepts at a fraction of the development cost and time that traditional technologies would require. At the other end of the life-cycle spectrum, the mature market stage, PLDs can be used to incorporate slight feature differentiation to ASSP products or to mimic the functionality of ASSPs that are no longer in production. These tactics can help maintain volume and price when the product has matured and market growth starts slowing.

Figure 3: At the emerging market stage, CE designers are challenged to push their early-adopted products into the mainstream. To accomplish this, a PLD can be utilized to deliver new differentiating features, while standard, complex functions are powered by an ASSP or an ASIC.

Consider, as another example, the HDTV market. Browse the shelves of any CE retailer, and find a range of HDTV display sizes and features — evidence of companies trying to establish customer leadership perceptions in a market fueled by growing customer demand. A key challenge for the HDTV industry is to strike a balance between having low-cost standard solutions and the unique intellectual property that differentiates the products. Achieving this balance can help them continually enhance their products while increasing retail price competition.

The HDTV industry uses low-cost PLDs and structured ASICs to implement features complementary to existing ASSP functionality in high-volume digital displays. With PLDs, industry designers gain an easier development process for feature enhancements for newer, larger displays. For example, consider the development range of HDTVs based on a single ASSP-based platform. Since FPGAs are available in a range of device sizes, this platform design approach uses a smaller device in a lower-end 42″ HDTV to improve the picture quality over the ASSP-only solution. In the top-line products, such as a 60-inch display or larger, a large FPGA can significantly improve picture quality and add differentiated features such as increased input/output ports, multimedia networking, and streamlined user interfaces. A programmable platform approach provides an HDTV product line with a range of feature and quality requirements ahead of any ASSP roadmap and faster than competitors using an ASSP-only or ASSP-ASIC development model.

PLDs: Part of a Winning Strategy
While once perceived as too expensive for high-volume consumer applications, PLDs are now the enabling technology behind today's fast-moving consumer electronics. At the same time, traditionally used technologies such as ASSPs and custom ASICs are proving inadequate in meeting CE product development and profitability challenges without PLDs.

Like automobile manufacturers who develop multiple vehicle types from a common chassis, CE designers can enjoy the same time and cost advantages by using a programmable-platform product development strategy. Having the core design in place, CE designers can swiftly create differentiating features for different price points, regions, or other market segments.

By using PLDs to amortize design time and costs over the full extent of the product line—and avoid delays from silicon re-spins—manufacturers can actually come out ahead in the ROI game. In summary, it's another way to work smarter to capture and maintain the market advantages that are increasingly challenging to attain.

About the author
Todd Scott is the senior director of the broadcast and consumer business unit at Altera Corporation in San Jose, California, Scott manages a marketing and engineering team focused on developing solutions for these two rapidly growing business sectors. An Altera employee for the past five years, he has also held marketing and/or engineering positions with Lattice, LSI Logic and Raytheon Semiconductor. Scott has an electronic engineering degree from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He can be reached at tscott@altera.com.

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