Platforms, Standards, Methodologies Conquer Design Challenges

Panel discussion: There are always ways through or around problems, no matter how daunting they seem at first.

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We in the electronics design world always have spent a lot of time wringing our hands (will we ever get to design below 1 micron??)

And while the problems are not imagined—they’re often soberingly real—we tend to plow through them, or, when necessary around them.

Today, amid increasing complexity and risk, we’re leveraging platforms, standards and new methodologies to slay these dragons. That was the takeaway from a day-long event here April 2, sponsored by Flextronics, called the Silicon Valley Open Innovation Summit.

I caught part of it, and what I heard was enlightening: Every day we confront rising design engineering complexity, and every day we stand up to slay the dragon.

Business as Usual?
The challenges, in essence, are business as usual, but the responses have been the opposite, according to Charles Krueger, CEO of BigLever Software, which provides systems and software product line engineering (PLE) framework, tools and services.

He said:
“The interaction of electronics and software and mechanical pieces the system is so tightly coupled and very, very complex. We don’t do business as usual.”

Tom Linton, Chief Procurement Officer with Flextronics, said one of dragon-slaying weapons is to leverage standard, commoditized building blocks as much possible and reference designs “as close to vanilla” as possible.

“That increases supply-chain speed and reduces cost,” Linton said.

Joseph Virginia, President of Senkatel USA, a company that specializes in “purpose-built” tablets for the education market, seconded some of the panel’s points.

While he described his company as a Tier 2 tablet vendor, he said that’s the very sector that’s driving overall tablet growth, with unit shipments expected to soar from 250 million units now to 534 million in 2017. That wouldn’t happen without standards and common reference designs.

“For us, it’s standards, reference designs and platforms,” Virginia said, calling out industry cooperative work on screen aspect ratios, MEMS sensors and wireless communications protocols.

A Little Help from Friends
He also saluted EMS and ODM solutions providers, without whom he said the tablet market might not exist today.

“Quality is expected regardless of the price,” Virginia said. “We haven’t seen someone say, ‘I’ll spend $100 on this tablet and it’s OK if it’s not very good.'”

Richard McDonell, director of Americas marketing at National Instruments, said one way to drive innovation is to adopt platform strategies.

He said:
“The number one thing we hear is, ‘Provide us with the platform or tools to focus on the key problem we’re trying to solve and that takes care of all the rest.’ We strive … to allow engineers to have a platform that gets them 70% or 80% of the way there. That allows them to then have their own differentiation or unique application-specific abilities.”

That approach helps National Instruments serve 35,000 customers a year.

But McDonell also acknowledged that while 80% of design is re-used today, custom design is far from dead.

Still, “If you’re not leveraging some type of platform, you’re at a disadvantage,” McDonell said.

Technology Feeding Its Own Growth
And while we reap the benefit of platforms, it has been a long time in coming, according to Qi Wang, Cadence’s Technical Assistant to the CEO. Wang noted that UC Berkeley engineering professor Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli first described the approach 30 years ago. So why the delay?

He said:
“30 years ago it was only people with Ph.D.s could work with computers. Now we have two-year-old kids playing with iPads and using wearable electronics.”

This technological evolution completely changes how we use technology to invent the future, cut time to market, cost, and increase functionality, Wang said. “All those changes changed the (design) requirements,” he added.

This has led to the rise of application-driven design methodologies. EDA companies are working to enable this kind of design with new methodologies and technologies from IP and verification IP all the way through to verification.

“As a tool vendor we realize we have to move up the value chain to capture more value,” he said.

He added:
“Traditional IC EDA companies have to think more about the system because hardware and software are tied together more closely than before. Customers are moving in that direction. We have to adapt ourselves in this very competitive market.”

Outliving the Platform?
The panelists fielded a number of questions from the audience. One audience member pointed out that today the lifetime of the cell phone is 18 months, which is effectively much shorter than the lifetime of a platform on which the cell phone is.

Panelists in general said whether that dynamic is true depends on the application and the market segment.

Alfred Crouch, chief strategist with embedded instrumentation vendor Asset Intertech, said in some consumer cases if you can’t get chip out in three or four months you’re going to miss major market opportunity.

NI’s McDonell paraphrased the famous line from hockey star Wayne Gretzky: Don’t skate to where the puck is, but to where the puck is going to be.

And he noted that some software platforms can last for 50 years while some hardware platforms can last for 10 to 15 years.