Highly integrated hardware and software platforms are particularly important for competitive industries such as energy, medical, and transportation, which feel tremendous pressure to deliver new and innovative ideas to market faster. They can use commercial platforms as another potential factor when deciding how to balance project tradeoffs for schedule, risk, and cost.
For the last 50 years, Dynapower has been producing high-voltage, high-current power converters for industrial automation, mining, and high-energy physics applications. The company focuses on efficiently addressing complicated power conversion challenges by using the most advanced digital control technologies available. The design team recently adopted FPGA technology to implement its control and processing algorithms and was able to achieve 40 times more processing performance per dollar than the traditional DSPs it had used in the past. Development time went from 72 weeks to just 24 weeks by using a standard off-the-shelf platform with proven hardware and an integrated software tool chain.
Helping premature infants
Half a million premature infants are born in the US each year, and almost half of them experience feeding problems when their brains struggle to coordinate sucking, swallowing, and breathing. KC BioMedix, a startup medical device company based in Shawnee, Kan., developed a product called the NTrainer System to help premature babies learn to feed orally and greatly increase their chances for survival.
Based on years of university research studies on premature infant brain development, this device is essentially a computerized pacifier featuring a tip that pulses with gentle bursts of air. When it was ready to commercialize the system, KC BioMedix started working with a third-party company to develop a custom embedded solution, but quickly realized that the projected costs would be too high. It decided to bring the development in-house and use an integrated embedded platform to design the system and simultaneously reduce the development cost by $250,000.
Fire suppression systems
With the increased presence of combustible materials such as lithium batteries in aircraft cargo, FedEx Express decided to invest in advanced fire suppression systems to improve flight crew and cargo safety. The engineers at Ventura Aerospace, a small company in California with focused expertise on building integrated control and monitoring systems for aviation shipping safety, recognized the opportunity to work with FedEx Express and started developing a system that would need to be lower cost than safety systems offered by larger, established suppliers, and delivered on an aggressive timeline.
The engineers initially considered designing all the electronics in-house, but they quickly realized that the time and expense involved wouldn't meet their project constraints. The team began by evaluating off-the-shelf platforms for the fire suppression system and ultimately selected NI Single-Board RIO hardware and LabVIEW graphical programming software. Having a platform-based approach allowed the engineers to focus on designing an innovative fire suppression system, rather than low-level electronics programming and development. They estimate that they spent one-third of the man-years in development that they would have invested using another solution. They generated profit from the project within 20 months and saw a 10X revenue improvement within five years.
The ever-increasing number of design starts and escalating complexity are forcing embedded design teams to be more efficient as they select technology for their projects. To address embedded design market needs and help teams get to market faster, technology providers are developing components, modules, or even complete embedded platforms with higher levels of integration and increased functionality. Ultimately, they're working toward a complete platform for embedded design containing communications, processing, system I/O, and integrated system design software. This combination of custom and off-the-shelf components is keeping design teams on pace with technology advancements and ahead of their competition.
Vineet Aggarwal is the group manager for embedded systems products at National Instruments.