By Rajesh Kumar P is the General Manager – Embedded System Design at QuEST Global
In 1965, Charles Draper from MIT had created the Apollo Guidance System to enable that “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Fortunately for mankind, this discovery was the first modern embedded system with a numeric display and keypad used for navigation, guidance, and control of all the Apollo missions. However, it was only with Intel’s 4004 microprocessor in the late ’70s that, embedded systems became cost-effective enough. Finally in the ’80s, in tandem with the invention of microcontrollers, embedded systems became commonplace and affordable enough for consumer product applications such as automatic refrigerators or washing machines. Being a combination of programmable hardware and software used to perform any specific task, embedded systems have rapidly evolved into extremely complex pieces of today’s electronic equipment such as the mirror-less digital cameras or fitness watches with BMI and ECG functionality. However, with the evolution of other enabling technologies and the post-modern ‘gadget-centric’ consumer’s demand, the incremental complexities of electronic circuitry, programming logic, and mechanical ingenuity have led to a few challenges in the field of embedded systems design.
What is Embedded Systems Design?
The art and science of assembling, programming and integrating – microprocessors, microcontrollers, Digital Signal Processors (DSP), and Application-Specific System Processors (ASSP) to execute a particular function inside a larger mechanical or electrical device or to work as a stand-alone device, is collectively called Embedded Systems Design.
The need for Embedded Systems Design
Be it industrial machines, automotive equipment, medical devices, consumer products, or even toys – embedded systems are facilitating every aspect of post-modern life. Consequently, there is hardly a modern industrial sector that could discount the need for Embedded Systems Design capabilities.
The automotive sector has set a typical example of successfully leveraging Embedded System Design by transforming the car from predominantly a mechanical system with the basic minimum electrical circuitry to today’s ultra-modern driverless-car. Starting from Engine Control Units (ECU), touch-screen dashboards with wireless infotainment capabilities, automatic gearboxes, self-deploying antilock braking systems (ABS) and Adaptive Cruise Control systems (ACC), the state-of-the-art automobiles such as the Tesla Model 3 are more of an electronic device than mechanical. Similar use-cases can also be traced in the evolution of several other sectors such as agriculture, energy, healthcare, financial services, manufacturing, transportation, and the list goes on.
The primary challenges of Embedded Systems Design
- Market dynamicity – From the business perspective, the system integrators of embedded products can be categorized as time to market, demand volume, and effort to create. Earlier embedded systems used to be developed as a result of detailed research and hence the quality of the product was ensured. Now with ever-shortening product-life-cycles, time to market is the buzzword for every industry, whether it be performance critical or safety critical or consumer products.
- Obsolescence management – As new generation devices and platforms keep emerging, the older ones are being pushed to obsolescence at a breakneck rate. The wide range of hardware platforms such as microcontrollers, Field Programmable Gated Arrays (FPGA) and System on Chip (SoC) have drastically compounded the problem. Today a designer has a wide range of components to choose from. Designing and developing an embedded system to stay active for a long duration is a challenge now. Also with the issue of obsolescence, the challenge of maintaining already existing stable products in the market is also huge. There are even custom devices designed to perform optimally for specific use cases. The designers are challenged with the fact that the platform they use for a design may get obsolete by the time the product comes out to the market.
- Availability of skilled resources – The availability of product engineers and managers who can look at the overall product perspective is also a challenge. With more and products coming in and the development teams trying to work around the rush with only software developers or programmers, embedded product engineering has not caught up to the need to the hour. Embedded product engineers need to be real product engineers with in-depth knowledge in hardware and embedded SW with a good knowledge of the mechanical design aspects required for the product. Additionally, they should also be able to visualize the product in the actual environment where it is expected to be deployed.
- Security – With the rapid increase in cybercrimes, every embedded system that’s connected to a network stands a chance of being compromised as the entry-point of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) by cyber-criminals. This can result in either oblivious data thefts at organizational levels or unwanted system downtime due to ransomware. With embedded systems being mass produced to compete with emerging features and forms, device security continues to an afterthought as most devices come with default security credentials and no capabilities for Over the Air (OTA) firmware updates.
- Interoperability – Modern embedded systems such as those in smart homes or industrial automation scenarios, are needed to work with several applications coded in different programming languages, manufactured by vendors spread across the globe with varying device specification standards and communication protocols. Interoperability of embedded systems are no longer an essentiality, but an imperative necessity for the commercial sustainability of innumerous products.
Turning the tide
If every stone in the world were a diamond, maybe engagement rings would have granite pebbles instead of solitaires. Likewise, if incremental innovations are branded to be disruptive with colossal marketing spends, they often underperform or burst like the batteries in the several smartphone models recalled. Disruptive innovations take time, money and much perseverance in terms of consumer and product research. Therefore, instead of just blatantly competing with startups and following industry trends of shrinking time-to-market, large enterprises should plan their flagship products and sustain their existing products with unwavering foresight.
The issue of obsolescence can be overcome only by adopting a modular approach for the design, in contrast to the highly integrated compact designs which was very popular in recent years. While using the approach of highly integrated compact designs, if an obsolescence issue comes up, majority of the time, the only solution would be for a total redesign. With the modular approach usually, the central controller part would be designed as a modular, pluggable unit which if required can easily be replaced with a similar module for a new generation controller.
Often large enterprises face the challenge of keeping their product team in sync with the disruptive developments in the domain of embedded systems design, while their primary focus needs to be on their product’s domain. One of the ways in which such large enterprises could take this forward is to keep their product team focused on their industry-specific domain competency while strategically offshoring the design, development and testing phases to engineering service providers at a fraction of the cost and time.
The challenges of security and interoperability are also often solvable by leveraging the multi-disciplinary expertise of engineering service providers. Utilizing the services of teams with highly competent embedded system design capabilities proven across several sectors, platforms, standards, functionalities, and more – would not just help mitigate design-centric security oversights, but also help in designing truly interoperable embedded systems that work with every other chip on board.
The Embedded QuEST ahead
With the global embedded systems market pegged to reach USD 214.39 billion by 2020 as per recent research reports, it’s high time for the embedded systems design industry to establish even more detailed over-arching standards, principles, and solutions. After all, the new dream of a smart, connected and automated human civilization is highly dependent on the success of these Integrated Circuits (IC) for embedding a seed of digital transformation in every possible walk of life and business.