Design-to-Order Strategies Streamline IoT Development
The advantages of a free online design tool supporting Linux and Android include reduced cost, simpler connectivity and efficiency in leveraging the supply chain.
To manage the ongoing shift from standalone systems to intelligent connected devices, developers are tasked with increasingly complex embedded designs. Smaller and smaller devices—with onboard processing, networking, security and more—require sophisticated hardware and software development that successfully manages price, performance and development timelines.
Electronic design automation (EDA) options are rising to the occasion, enabling a new approach based on simplifying the design of ‘things’ for the Internet of Things (IoT). Today, EDA includes new design-to-order (D2O) tools that streamline development for OEMs and clear a competitive path for designers with less extensive engineering and design knowledge (Figure 1). Also gained is the ability to manage the entire small form factor design process from concept to production, allowing developers to reach the market quickly with production-ready, connected solutions.
Designing a customized expansion board to complement a computer-on-module (COM) requires considerable knowledge of electrical engineering and embedded systems design, in order to use the schematics of each component as a guideline. Once the board is designed and laid out, it can be a cumbersome and costly task to handle manufacturing logistics, such as managing electrical components within the supply chain. Additionally, there are the notable costs associated with each step from design to delivery, creating negative impact on the system’s total cost of ownership (TOC). These factors have historically kept low-cost, mass-customized electronic devices well out of reach in a highly competitive marketplace.
The concept of D2O addresses these limitations, advancing the current state of EDA by transforming it into an intuitive web-based design interface. It’s now possible for developers to access a modular design platform that offers ‘blocks’ or modules of functionality that can be implemented easily with drag and drop techniques. Users can choose to design a board from scratch or modify an existing board to better suit the needs of their applications. Geppetto, offered by Gumstix, is one example of a modular design platform that lets developers consider features and performance options enabled by a library of modules. Once the design is built, the board can be visualized with accurate dimensions in a real-world 3D view.
Innovative D2O in Action
Diverse D2O module options allow custom expansion boards to be designed for third party commercial off-the-shelf technologies. Designs are highly flexible, optimized for IoT devices that may require features such as LCD displays, sensors, global navigation (GPS) chips, USB functionality, servos, networking components, general I/O headers and more. Developing custom hardware becomes easier and faster, while the system itself ensures maximum compatibility with OEM software.
Using the third-party BeagleBone Black and Geppetto (Figure 2) to illustrate the D2O process, implementing a design’s features may require the addition of many capes, or expansion boards, to the base board. The design can become physically large and cumbersome. What’s more, because of signal processing operations, some capes may not necessarily function when combined with others.
Geppetto allows users to combine multiple functional blocks onto a single custom cape; this reduces the overall number of capes as well as the height of the design itself. The example design includes a USB Console port, GPS connector, LCD Display, WiFi and Bluetooth designed onto a single custom cape to expand the BeagleBone Black. This cape would be an ideal starting point for autonomous IoT applications such as a GPS tracker or a home automation system.
Users access an array of tools to implement these functions, clicking to select dimensions or module functionality such as connectivity or networking options. Module information includes details about features and performance; users simply toggle to hide these details or close completed tasks to declutter the workspace. Once all connections are made, the modules and the board will turn green, indicating the project is complete. Users can then access a 3D rendering of the completed cape for review prior to ordering.
Connecting to Supply Chain Automation
While D2O’s straightforward approach to hardware design adds value to IoT development, its supply chain features are equally as important to the competitive landscape. Users can optimize systems for cost without sacrificing critical components, based on having a clear picture of how each module affects the bottom line. Further, once a board is designed and ordered, the D2O tool generates the schematic, layout and Bill of Materials (BoM) and ensures that the board is tested for bring-up. Printed circuit board (PCB) routing, sourcing, component purchasing and fabrication of the finished product happen seamlessly in the background, reducing both manufacturing costs and production times, and thus providing greater product development value to the OEMs.
Optimized D2O tools consider not just the cost of design, but also engineering and supply chain logistics. Users have access to a smarter approach to the entire process of design, supply chain integration and manufacturing automation. Completed designs can arrive in 15 business days, offering a favorable and cost-effective comparison to the two-three month production timeline inherent in traditional board design solutions.
IoT is Driving EDA’s Path
With a 40+ year legacy of evolution, history proves that EDA’s flexibility is essential to its value. Keeping step with design needs such as IoT is driving the next clear shift, with complex EDA applications evolving into platforms for fast, flexible design. For example, although legacy EDA products are powerful, they also carry a hefty price tag and can require steep learning curves; their advanced tools and training may only be accessible to the largest OEMs. Some solutions bridge this gap by allowing users to submit an existing design to a third-party supply chain and manufacturing process. Others, such as those on the hardware startup front, offer value to companies solely interested in designing, rather than manufacturing, a board.
Users submit a design for production, which eliminates the overhead of prototyping, manufacturing and fulfillment. Still others address the needs of major OEMs only, offering costly product lifecycle management solutions that include the design process, supply chain management, project management, document management and enterprise integration services.
Web-based D2O offers an alternative that applies more broadly, creating a consistent design platform that reduces risk, costs and design time for OEMs of all sizes; value extends to entrepreneurs, makers and more casual users, enabling collaboration and flexibility.
Long Term Impact of D2O
At first blush, it seems that the value of D2O is in removing much of the tedium and low-level design work associated with electronics design. Hardware design is abstracted to a higher level than just components and risk is removed from the equation. Designers at every level—from embedded professionals and OEMs that need thousands of boards, to researchers and hobbyists that need limited quantities for a particular use case—can create a completely custom device quickly and cost-effectively. Easy customization removes the barrier to mass customization. Users don’t need deep expertise in the fundamentals of a how a computer works in order to design one, and can instead focus on their software design strengths to make the system unique.
D2O’s primary value is in simplifying the design process, removing the burden of supply chain management and capitalizing on behind-the-scenes sourcing and manufacturing services to deliver a product and manage TCO. By removing supply chain management and manufacturing logistics from the developer’s plate, D2O enables for electronics production what Amazon.com’s elimination of high overhead and constrained shelf-space did for retail. D2O is creating opportunity for OEMs at all levels—optimized to support development for the Internet of Things, and fostering competition with easy, affordable customization of electronic devices.
Andrew Simpson is a content developer and writer at Gumstix. He has an avid interest in electronics and hardware development. Since joining Gumstix in 2012, he has published numerous articles and tutorials on embedded systems. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of British Columbia, where he is also pursuing a second degree in electrical engineering.