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Articles from 2021 In March

Free Chart Clarifies Over-the-Air Testing

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Over-the-Air (OTA) testing has become a cornerstone in the development and deployment of IoT devices and products. While many designers focus their testing energies and budgets on software, the hardware aspects of OTA devices can be neglected. It is important to make sure the antennas designed or selected will perform as intended. 

The device and its environment must be considered during the development phase.  For example, the design of an antenna for a large stationary device like a vending machine needs to include the operational environment, namely, that the machines will likely be installed or placed against a wall.  Designing or selecting an antenna that concentrates its energy and radiates toward the front of the device would be ideal for this environment.

Conversely, the antenna design and subsequent test of a smartphone must allow for the antenna to radiate in all directions and not lose communication when the user moves around or faces a particular direction away from the cell tower. 

Over-the-Air antenna testing and measurement are the only way to empirically qualify the entire signal path and antenna pattern of a stationary or mobile wireless device.

Cellular and Wireless Testing

Most wireless devices, especially in the smart mobile device market, utilize an error correction algorithm to compensate for a poor receive signal either by increasing the output transmit power or reducing the data rate before the connection is lost. This is the basic approach used by all major technologies, including cellular GSM, GPRS, CDMA, WCDMA, LTE, and wireless technologies such as 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth, and ZigBee, and many others.

As most engineers know, there is always a tradeoff. For example, increasing the output power can cause a reduction in battery life, which heats up the device and will probably lower the data transfer rate. Here is where OTA testing of antennas can help development teams identify the problematic areas to hopefully improve the product user experience by increasing product performance and reliability.

The growth of 5G New Radio (NW) technologies – the global standard for the air interface of 5G networks - only adds to the challenges for OTA hardware development.  The higher device integration and much higher frequencies required by 5G are driving the demand to test devices OTA. How do device dimensions and the chosen frequency range drive size and space requirements in OTA test setups?

Several companies are involved in testing the most critical OTA parameters and also providing a concise overview of how to perform far-field measurements at near-field distances. For example, Rohde & Schwarz has created a free poster to explore OTA testing and discover the most compact OTA test solutions for antenna and device testing. There is also a white paper that provides further technical details.

Another good resource comes from Siemens-EDA in the form of a paper that presents an introduction to antennas in general, their parameters and different types, as well as antenna characterization and testing.

Hardware testing for OTA devices is challenging, but these resources and others will help you ensure your products work as designed and intended.

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Rohde & Schwarz)

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

Why I’m an Engineer: Liz Del Cid of Jenike & Johanson

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Liz Del Cid, R&D Engineer for Jenike & Johanson.

Liz Del Cid joined bulk material engineering firm Jenike & Johanson as a research and development (R&D) engineer in 2018. In her current role, she conducts research on new particle modeling technologies and methods, develops DEM particle shapes and contacts, and performs DEM modeling for specialized projects.

Prior to her work with J&J, Del Cid spent more than six years as a research engineer for Overland Conveyor Co. Inc. She has also had a role as an adjunct professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

Del Cid earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, and an MS and Doctor of Philosophy in Mechanical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.

Powder & Bulk Solids recently asked Del Cid a few questions about her experiences and background as an engineer to provide insight on the various engineering roles within the powder and bulk solids industry.

What is the most rewarding part of working in the field as an engineer to you?

DEL CID: I have been in the field for over a decade now and the most thrilling part of being an engineer has been finding solutions to difficult problems. My favorite part is sitting down to examine the situation, learning about the problem, studying the subject, and working my way to a solution that will be successful.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job as an engineer?

DEL CID: The most challenging part has been learning to maintain a balance between the fine details of a problem while the keeping in mind the big picture. As a R&D engineer, I love working the math and physics behind a problem but need to remember to take a step back and make sure I am grasping the big picture of the problem at hand. It is similar with numerical modeling in simulations, we spend time tuning the parameters that describe the physics at the micro-scale while aiming to model the macro scale real world problem.

How did your educational experience(s) prepare you to work in the field?

DEL CID: I find you need a solid understanding of the fundamentals to work in the bulk solids field. Then good spatial reasoning to visualize the changes each solution brings. A thorough understanding of the courses in math, engineering, and physics has given me an advantage to see the world through numbers. I find that to be the best outcome of my educational career and it is quite beautiful.

If you could go back and do it again, what would you change about your engineering education? 

DEL CID: I had the opportunity to learn by doing while at CalPoly, but I did not find my love for the numerical until I attended Colorado School of Mines. If I could change one thing about my engineering education, I would have spent more time in the Mathematics department in my undergrad years. I missed some interesting course work that I did not have the time to take as a graduate student. Who knew I would be lamenting not taking a class on proofs and statistics?

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What’s the single most valuable lesson you have learned as an engineer – either in the classroom or in the field?

DEL CID: There comes a time when you have to admit that you do not know how to solve a problem and you have to be ok with saying it aloud, and ask for help. I take these as opportunities to learn something new from the experts who do. The sooner you can identify that you need help, the sooner you can do something about it. I assure you, after you learn, you will not forget how to solve a problem like it again.

How do you think your engineering role will change over the next decade?

DEL CID: Technology is always advancing. I explore material rheology and I have seen new, and tougher materials to describe and model year to year. I am excited to see what new materials are developed in the coming decade. Foremost, I would like to see a greater transfer of knowledge between senior and junior engineers. I am working on teaching newer engineers my field, Discrete Element Modeling, as I spend time learning from my mentors the lessons they have learned over their 45+ years in industry.

Learn More

The R&D engineer will present a session, “The Future of Computational Modeling & Simulation for Powers, Bulk Solids & Dry Manufacturing Processes,” on April 29 during the International Powder & Bulk Solids Digital Conference. Join Powder & Bulk Solids and Del Cid for this must-attend event.

For more career development articles, click here.

Texas Instruments Bullish on 48-Volt Automotive Systems

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Texas Instruments has a new 48-volt motor controller to help build the ecosystem of components needed for this technology to become commonplace.

While battery-electric vehicles are getting attention as carmakers and nations announce plans for a combustion-free future, combustion-powered vehicles with an electric assist will represent the majority of new vehicles in the interim. That’s why Texas Instruments is focusing on the market for components for 48-volt electrical systems and their integrated starter-generators. These higher-powered electric systems are not only good for combustion vehicles, points out TI’s general manager for Powertrain in Automotive Systems, Karl-Heinz Steinmetz.

Battery-electric vehicles will benefit from having a 48-volt power system aboard as well to run high-current devices such as windshield heaters, electric HVAC systems, and power-hungry computers needed for advanced driver assistance systems or eventual autonomy.

Steinmetz leads TI’s hybrid and electric vehicle and powertrain sector team, which is tasked with reducing vehicle emissions through greater vehicle electrification.

There is an opportunity because the market for mild hybrid vehicles is forecast to grow by 30 percent in the next five years, and by 2027, more than 70 percent of all passenger vehicles will still have a combustion engine aboard, according to Steinmetz.

This means that for carmakers to make effective progress in reducing CO2 emissions, they will need to continue improving the efficiency of these combustion-powered vehicles because as the majority, they will have more impact than the smaller number of pure EVs.

Further, the electrical accessories in many cars are straining the limits of their 12-volt electrical architecture. “When you have a feature-rich car, you are getting at the edge of the power capabilities of the 12-volt batteries,” said Steinmetz. “You are probably getting short on power.”

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Karl-Heinz Steinmetz, TI's general manager for automotive powertrain.

A 12-volt electrical system has approximately 3.5 kilowatts of available power, he explained, while a 48-volt vehicle has between 15 and 20 kW. Indeed, the latest developments clear the way to take 48-volt systems to 50 kW, Steinmetz stated.

The computers needed for self-driving systems will consume about 1.0 kW, and two of them will be needed for redundancy. That means that the computers that would steer future autonomous vehicles would consume more than half the available power on a 12-volt system. This makes 48 volts more practical for such vehicles.

Electric HVAC systems are another great application of 48-volt power because with the extra power available they can run while the combustion engine is stopped. Typically, 12-volt cars restart their engine to support HVAC when the cabin gets too hot or cold.

Other uses for the muscle of a 48-volt system would be a hybrid that can even shut off the gas engine periodically while cruising at highway speeds, as it takes relatively little power to maintain speed on level ground.

Additionally, 48-volt power can drive electric turbochargers, making gas engines even more efficient while providing no-lag instant power delivery.

Battery electric vehicles will also benefit from having a 48-volt electric HVAC system because their 12-volt system is stained to provide enough power and their high-voltage drive circuits are too dangerous to run indiscriminately to other systems in the car. “You do not want high voltage in a crash zone,” Steinmetz observed.
48-volt systems fall below the 50-volt threshold where there is concern about potentially stopping someone’s heart in the event of a shock. “High voltage and the electrical safety risk does not allow you to use high voltage everywhere you need high power,” Steinmetz said. “You need something in between.”

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TI's DRV3255-Q1 integrated brushless motor driver.

48-volts are that something in between, which is why Texas Instruments has just introduced a new integrated Grade 0 brushless DC motor driver for 48-V motor control systems such as the traction inverters and integrated starter-generators used by mild hybrid electric vehicles.

TI’s new DRV3255-Q1 motor driver can let designers slash their motor system size by 30 percent. It can support electric motors at up to 30 kW. The company boasts that, by integrating the active short-circuit logic and dynamic fault response, the new motor driver simplifies designs, reduces board space, and cuts the bill-of-materials cost in 48-volt drive systems.

Those are the kind of advances that will make 48-volt systems more appealing to carmakers, who have so far taken their time to embrace them.

Lexus Kicks Off Electrified Vehicle Product Blitz with Swoopy Concept Car

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Lexus LF-Z Electrified concept car

Lexus launched the first of a planned blitz of new product concepts with the unveiling of the LF-Z Electrified concept car. The LF-Z will be followed by two more product reveals later this year which are part of a plan for 20 all-new or redesigned Lexus models over the next five years.

Adding to the nearly two million electrified models Lexus has sold since 2005, more than half of those new models will be electrified battery-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or hybrid-electric vehicles. These won’t just be the sedans and crossover SUVs that are the bread-and-butter of Lexus in the U.S., according to the company. There will be other models, which could include sports models, vehicles meant to be chauffeur-driven, and still other new genres.

The company’s stated goal is to sell more electrified vehicles than purely combustion-powered ones by 2025. The spark for this initiative is the LF-Z Electrified, a concept that highlights the new “DIRECT4” all-wheel-drive electric platform that upcoming Lexus EVs will employ. Lexus describes this platform as providing “ideal dynamic balance achieved through the optimal placement of the battery and electric motors,” though we are by now well familiar with these benefits of purpose-built EV platforms as introduced by other carmakers previously.

Because the LF-Z Electrified is only a concept, there are few specific technical details available. But Lexus does say that, as with other purpose-built EV platforms, the car mounts its batteries beneath the floor for a lower center of gravity. The battery pack runs longitudinally through the car’s spine, contributing to the rigidity of the chassis.

Separate electric motors for the front and rear wheels mean the LF-Z Electrified can run as a front-drive, rear-drive, or all-wheel-drive car, depending on the circumstances.

Lexus engineers envision steer-by-wire becoming a practical alternative to having a mechanical connection between the car’s steering wheel and the front tires. The company says that this will provide a “more direct” response, but we can only judge the success of the final calibration of any such system by testing it in person.


A rendering of the LF-Z Electrified's powertrain configuration.

Early iterations of other “by-wire” systems have usually proved to be disappointing, but it could be that the experience gained by the development of brake-by-wire will prevent such an outcome for early steer-by-wire systems.

The driver is supported by an augmented reality heads-up display that provides access to functions such as the navigation system, audio system, and driving mode selection within the driver’s line of sight.

Driving-related functions are controlled through steering wheel-mounted switches, also helping to minimize reasons for the driver to look away from straight ahead.

The LF-Z Electrified uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to support the driver through voice communication. The AI promises to recognize, learn, and adapt to a driver’s habits and preferences, supporting tasks such as determining driving routes and making restaurant reservations. The car uses a digital smartphone key, eliminating the need to pass along a physical key to other drivers.


Lexus promises a driver-centric control system for the LF-Z Electrified.

While some of these features may seem like overkill today, it seems likely that we will become increasingly accustomed to encountering them in the coming years.

Advancing Toward a Connected Global Healthcare System

Peter Winston, Integrated Computer Solutions

COVID-19 drastically disrupted the practice and delivery of healthcare, firmly rooting telehealth and other forms of digital health into the patient care continuum. And although the healthcare industry had already been adopting constant connectivity pre-pandemic through wearables and EHR systems, the global health crisis further propelled the ongoing digital transformation.

However, heightened attention and expectations surrounding a global integrated services market that delivers real-time patient care opens medical device manufacturers to a suite of new challenges. These range from the development of secure and HIPPA-compliant products to the design of user-friendly systems that augment performance and are scalable on an international stage.

To illuminate the critical need for manufacturers to enhance the usability of connected medical devices and mitigate user error, Informa Markets – Engineering, the organizers of the industry-leading Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) and BIOMEDevice events and publisher of MD+DI, will present MD&M BIOMEDigital, a new virtual conference and exhibition for medical device engineers and manufacturers driving progress and innovation in medtech and biotechnology.

Taking place April 6 and 7, the virtual event will provide a unique meeting opportunity for the global community featuring a virtual expo floor with more than 100 companies driving frontline product innovation. The conference will include a robust schedule offering technical sessions curated around today’s challenges, from developing diagnostic products to sensor miniaturization.  

Register here and access exhibitor profiles, exclusive networking opportunities, and technical sessions.

I enjoyed speaking with Peter Winston, founder and CEO at Integrated Computer Solutions (ICS), a company combining user experience design and world-class software development to create transformative products for a connected world. ICS will be exhibiting at MD&M BIOMEDigital, and Winston shared the importance of the upcoming event and what attendees can look forward to learning at the company’s virtual booth.

Technology plays an increasingly prominent role in the healthcare and life sciences ecosystem, from touchscreen technology in an ER to controlling lifesaving connected devices. Can you speak to the future of accelerating the adoption of technology in this highly regulated sector?

Winston: Analysts predict the global Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) will reach a valuation of $158 billion in 2022, up from $41 billion in 2017. ICS sees this acceleration firsthand with the increased demand for our services. This adoption drives unprecedented innovation and is delivering new capabilities and efficiencies that translate into better patient outcomes. But with innovation comes new challenges. There is a growing expectation that modern medical devices are usable in all the ways consumers have become used to: wireless/wired connectivity, cloud usage, automatic software updates, all contained within a beautiful and seamless user experience. Developing these groundbreaking devices has become far more complex. While incorporating new tech is always a challenge, doing so in a connected medical device with the potential for cybersecurity vulnerabilities adds a new wrinkle. Any regulated medical device going through the approvals process for developed markets has a high bar to clear on ensuring cybersecurity safety.

ICS expertly balances advanced technology and safety in the healthcare and life sciences sector by introducing forward-leaning technology in developing safety-critical medical devices. Can you speak to this technology and ICS’ portfolio of products that are transforming patient care?

Winston: The accelerating adoption of connectivity and digitalization in the healthcare sector is bringing extraordinary innovation into devices. While developing these devices has become far more complex, it has also raised the bar and opened new possibilities for groundbreaking devices. Building on its history as a leader in UX design and software development for embedded devices, ICS established a dedicated medical device practice, adding talent with critical competencies and new service offerings in usability design, cybersecurity, AI and robotics, cloud services, and regulatory compliance. ICS’ team of UX and visual designers and software engineers use ISO 13485-compliant processes for full-lifecycle product development leading to a 510(k) submission.

As a prominent exhibitor at the all-new virtual event MD&M BIOMEDigital, can you share what products and services attendees can look forward to engaging with at your booth? 

Winston: ICS will discuss our service offerings around medical device design and software development, including usability design, cybersecurity, AI and robotics, cloud services, and regulatory compliance. We will also showcase our low-code tools that quickly convert a UX prototype to a working product and offer our complimentary technical assessment program.

What excites you most about connecting with your community at the upcoming virtual event?

Winston: We’re looking forward to the opportunity to engage with the best and brightest in the medtech industry at this vital industry gathering that brings together the two largest North American medical events. We’re also eager to share with a broad audience the latest developments at ICS and insight from our medtech and UX design experts and hear from colleagues throughout the medtech industry.


To schedule a meeting with ICS at MD&M BIOMEDigital, please register for the event here and reach out to Peter Winston, founder and CEO of ICS at [email protected].


Maintaining a Stable Supply Chain Despite the Pandemic

Jeff Cushner, Qosina

Medical device supply chains have been challenged during the pandemic, demonstrating the value of redundancy and disaster planning. Companies that had planned for worst-case scenarios often found themselves better equipped to respond to challenges and identify solutions quickly.

For instance, Qosina, a ISO 22301–certified medical device components supplier, had already put a Business Continuity Management System in place prior to the pandemic. As a result, the company was able to pivot quickly to respond to the crisis.

We asked Jeff Cushner, Qosina’s vice president of sales and customer service, a few questions about COVID-19’s impact on the medical device supply chain and what enabled the company to respond quickly.

Have you seen buying patterns or business practices change in the medical device industry during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there any lasting impacts or lessons learned from these changes?

Cushner: We have of course seen changes in purchasing patterns as a result of the changing needs of our customers. Purchasing patterns begin with the patient. During the pandemic, the medical market experienced a decline in elective patient procedures, which then translated into fewer products being used. There was, however, an increase in demand for infusion sets and ventilator-related items for COVID patients.

How have engineers’ needs changed or evolved? Are there any lasting impacts or lessons learned from these changes?

Cushner: Technology has evolved, but as related to the development of medical devices, the need of the engineers to fully understand the nature of the component being selected along with the assurance of quality remains steadfast. We believe that the assurance of supply of components has become a requirement to be addressed during the development stages of a new product. During COVID-19, some companies learned the hard way that their supply chain was not as robust as it needed to be.

Have you changed any stock offerings or add-on services in response to pandemic needs, and how might that impact your offerings in the future? 

Cushner: We learned that we needed to group items together by function. For example, we generated lists of components specific to life-supporting machines like ventilators and ECMO. We also incorporated items like swabs and transport tubes for COVID-19 testing kits to address the new customers we gained. In addition, we found new suppliers to use for second sources, ensuring a more secure supply chain for our customers.

Did the pandemic reveal any gaps in the medical device supply chain, and if so, how did you help fill those gaps? 

Cushner: We found gaps in our supply chain with regard to status of products. Meaning, items that we thought were still accessible actually were not and that has pressed us to look at new processes internally to update our information and vendors. Qosina has a robust supplier management system in place, and we initiated frequent meetings with our suppliers and freight carriers to minimize disruptions.

What was the most popular medical device component in 2020?

Cushner: I don’t think we can call out any particular component, but generally, anything related to COVID-19 was the focus for many customers. Additionally, customers who had concerns about supply-chain integrity ordered more to protect their business.

Were there any redundancy/contingency programs that Qosina had put in place before the pandemic that have since proven useful?

Cushner: Business continuity played heavily into our ability to operate and to maintain a stable supply chain for our customers. Being an ISO 22301–certified company offered significant advantage for Qosina and for our customers globally.

Having a Business Continuity Management System (BCMS) in place was critical to our ability to immediately assess the crisis and begin to implement the actions needed to keep our staff safe and keep our business operations running as close to normal as circumstances would allow. During the beginning of the pandemic, we cannot fathom how we would have been able to accomplish what then appeared to be the impossible if we had not created a system and a manual that quite literally provided the framework for action. We spent no time trying to figure out who would deal with the crisis or how. That work had already been done, and once Scott Herskovitz, our president and CEO, activated the plan, the Crisis Management Team was called together to implement the plan. The team was already established, and their clearly defined roles allowed for the work to begin immediately. We believe that our BCMS was the difference between our successful traversing of this pandemic and what might have been a very painful and costly journey if no plan were in place.

Quite frankly, our ability to act quickly, follow our plan, and begin implementing solutions from day one allowed our customers—many of whom are essential healthcare companies—to rest assured that the part of their supply chain that depends on Qosina would be there for them so they could concentrate their efforts on other issues arising from the pandemic. Our BCMS provided our customers with exactly what the plan is named for: business continuity, which is what we were able to deliver in the face of a global health crisis. 

Qosina offers modification of existing molds and new product design and development. Can you explain how these services were put to work during the pandemic, and what support you anticipate will be needed post-pandemic?

Cushner: Our ability to address our customers’ needs, even at the tool development level, is an advantage at any time. During the pandemic, we were asked to develop tools specific to COVID-19 applications in a short amount of time. In a high-pressure moment, knowing the severity of the problem, trust and cooperation between all teams became the key ingredient. Our customers asked us to perform and put their faith in our technical team’s hands, and thankfully, we were able to deliver to meet the timeline. We continue to offer this same support in or out of the pandemic-–hopefully soon to be post-pandemic.

Over-the-Air Updates with AWS and FreeRTOS

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Updating firmware in the field has always been a critical component of even the earliest of embedded systems. Access to hardware interfacing tools like a JTAG or SWD programmer provides physical access to embedded system programming ports. Other access methods for firmware updates include interfaces such as USB, automotive CAN, a serial port, and so on. Wireless port connectivity has gained prominence as more embedded devices become part of the IoT. In today’s post, we will explore such wireless, over-the-air (OTA) communications using Amazon Web Services (AWS) and FreeRTOS.

OTA Overview using AWS

OTA updates can be a bit intimidating the first time that a developer encounters them. While the process is somewhat complex, it can be broken down into fairly simple components.

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Breaking down the OTA process into simple elements. 

There are three main pieces to the firmware update:

  1. An OEM that releases a new firmware update.
  2. The AWS that stores the firmware image and facilitates the update.
  3. Deployed devices that receive the firmware update.

The AWS plays a pretty important part in the entire process. The new firmware image is uploaded to a Simple Storage Service (S3) bucket which is used to store firmware images. Next, the OEM uses the IoT Core to schedule a job that will notify deployed devices that a firmware update is available. Finally, the deployed devices download the new image, validates it, and then updates their application code. At that point, the devices are updated and run the new application code until the process restarts and a new update is available.

OTA Support in Microcontrollers

The overview honestly makes OTA updates look simple and that is because all the heavy lifting is already done for developers. If a team were to decide that they wanted to build their own solution from scratch, they would find that they would be in for quite the development effort. Teams really don’t want to build their own OTA solutions but instead, leverage existing solutions so that they can focus on their own product features and differentiators. For teams that are planning to use FreeRTOS, they can leverage Amazon’s FreeRTOS libraries and OTA example to get up and running with an OTA solution extremely quickly.

One nice thing about the AWS OTA solution is that it is supported by a number of microcontroller vendors. For example, if you were to visit the AWS Partner Device Catalog you would find that there are nearly three dozen silicon vendor partners with almost 60 different development boards supported! Now, not all of these support the OTA solution but quite a few do. This gives developers a pretty wide range of devices to select from and there really isn’t anything stopping a developer from porting the examples to a processor that isn’t supported.

OTA Features and Capabilities

Over the last few weeks, I’ve specifically been trying the AWS OTA demo code with FreeRTOS on an Infineon/Cypress PSoC 64 Standard Secure – AWS Wi-Fi BT Pioneer Kit for a course that I am going to be teaching. I mention this kit because I find it is particularly interesting from a security standpoint in that they don’t just support “traditional” OTA or bootloaders but have gone to great lengths to ensure that not only the firmware update can be secure but that the boot process on the microcontroller establishes a secure root-of-trust.

This brings me to the point that not all OTA or bootloader solutions are created equal and, in many circumstances, there is room for customization and configuration. For example, the PSoC 64 OTA demo by default is configured to provide a standard binary file output for the firmware that is pushed to the S3 bucket. However, within the Cypress toolchain, there is a Secure SDK tool that includes several policies that can be used to encrypt the firmware image. The devices onboard a secure bootloader then decrypts and authenticates the new firmware image before ever writing it to flash.

When looking at potential OTA solutions that work with microcontrollers, there are several features that should be kept in mind such as:

  • The microcontroller establishes a root-of-trust
  • The microcontroller includes a secure bootloader (which verifies integrity, authenticates, and decrypts the image)
  • The firmware images can be encrypted
  • Ease of generating a firmware update job
  • Ease of managing fleets of deployed devices


OTA updates are quickly becoming a requirement for nearly every IoT device. These solutions help developers update their firmware in the field with minimal effort which allows them to focus more on the product than common device design elements like the bootloader and OTA. When experimenting with my Cypress PSoC 64 development board and AWS OTA demo, I found that I was able to configure AWS and my development board to perform a firmware update in about an hour the first time I did it. That’s really not too bad given that starting such a solution from scratch would normally take several months.  

Jacob Beningo is an embedded software consultant who currently works with clients in more than a dozen countries to dramatically transform their businesses by improving product quality, cost and time to market. He has published more than 200 articles on embedded software development techniques, is a sought-after speaker and technical trainer, and holds three degrees which include a Master of Engineering from the University of Michigan. Feel free to contact him at [email protected] at his website, and sign-up for his monthly Embedded Bytes Newsletter.

How to Build a Better Pneumatic Power System

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How do you build a pneumatic power system? We turned to Festo, an industrial control and automation company that produces pneumatic and electrical control and drive technology for factory or process automation.

Pneumatic fluid power systems are used extensively in manufacturing across a wide range of industrial sectors. These systems are commonly powered by compressed air. An electrically powered compressor powers cylinders, air motors, pneumatic actuators, and other pneumatic devices. Pneumatic systems are valued for their ability to provide a lower cost, more flexible, or safer alternative to electric motors or hydraulic actuators.

Design News caught up with Frank Langro, director of product market management for pneumatic automation at Festo. He offered his view on the critical factors involved in building a better pneumatic system.

Design News: What type of fluid power systems does Festo support?

Frank Langro: Pneumatic systems. There are so many applications in fluid power. Every automated facility can have a pneumatic system. Automotive, semiconductor plants, food & beverage, packaging, and consumer goods. That’s just a sampling. With some of the applications in electronics, you have a lot of pick-and-place or putting parts on printed circuit boards. You have repetitive testing such as a cell phone where you’re testing the keypad or continuity testing contacting various points on an electronic device.

In semiconductors production, you have many pneumatic valves in wafter processing. They are typically used to pilot gas values. In packaging, a common application you see is pick-and-place putting products in a box or case. You also see a lot of stopping and holding along a conveyor line, as well as folding, holding, closing, and sealing. Any highly repetitive manufacturing activity offers a good use case for using pneumatics.

Here’s an example of an automation function that can be powered by pneumatics:

DN: What goes into the planning of a fluid power system?

Frank Langro: In a compressed air system in a plant, you have to understand how much compresed air you’re going to use. That determines the size of the compressor and how many compressors you need. It is a big capital expenditure. Oversizing is an additional cost and undersizing means you won’t have the capacity to run your machines to their fullest capacity.

On the lower machine level, the machine is designed to perform a task with a certain throughput – say 1000 parts per minute. To do this, you have to look at the task, whether you’re holding something or connecting something. You need to be able to provide the needed force, and that will determine what size cylinder bore and operating pressure you will need. That speed of the actuatorwill determine what flow rate your valve will need to provide. Once you get the basics of the demand, you can always have some additional optimization of the machine.

For example, if you look at a cylinder that moves a part into position. When it retracts, since you have no load to move you may not need to operate at the same high pressure. You can use a pressure regulator to reduce the pressure on the return stroke.  The relieves the demand on the system and also relieves the wear on the cylinder.

DN: What engineering professionals are involved. What are the disciplines?

Frank Langro: With machine design, you’ll find the main engineering disciplines. Mechanical engineers being responsible for the construction, mechanical component selection, and defining the operating pressure and flow rates. You’ll have electrical engineers for the wiring and power distribution and  Control engineers defining  the control architecture, deciding on whether to use direct I/O or implement some serial bus interface.

The controls engineer will also work with the user interfaces, for example the HMI and the necessary programming to implement. An emerging discipline that we see now is a mechatronics engineer. Mechatronics merges electrical, mechanical, and control engineering. The mechatronics engineer is looking at the full approach machine and not just the individual discipline.

DN: What is the process from initial design through completion?

Frank Langro: You’ll definitely see simulation. One of the current trends is digitalization. What that does ideally for a machine builder is that they will digitally build the machine through the CAD models and component data.  This will enable simulation of the design before you put one bolt in place. That creates optimization in the design, minimizing error and saving costs.

We recommend using sizing software so that a builder can get the best value and operational performance from the machine. If you put in a larger cylinder than you need, that means larger valves and  more air consumption,  the impact on the compressor is that it needs to work longer and harder. Right-sizing minimizes the amount of air you need and it optimizes the operation. Also, the smaller cylinders cost less money. There are old-school builders, and if they see a ¼ port, they use a ¼ valve. You should look at the operation based on the pressure and speed you need and size the components based on the application needs to avoid oversizing

DN: What are the testing and quality control processes?

Frank Langro: In terms of machines, a lot depends on the company. With the use of simulation and digital design tools, this will certainly help to streamline testing. Of course, nobody will accept a machine sight-unseen, there is always a customer sign-off where output, functionality, operation, and safety are all checked.  The more that simulation is used the less likely changes will have to be made during the physical testing.

The testing and quality control are typically built into the design process. The design is checked and validated through simulation. Here you can identify throughput is not achieved. In the trouble shoting stages you need to determine if the poor performance is a result of a component defect or a misapplication. Quite often the component manufacturer will step in and help the OEM in the troubleshooting and help to come to a resolution.

Rob Spiegel has covered manufacturing for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include automation, supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

President Biden's Infrastructure Package 50 Years in the Making

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This week, President Biden will release details in a speech in Pittsburgh about his multitrillion-dollar economic recovery package that will focus on rebuilding roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. The package has drawn Republican support even with its goal of being partially financed through tax increases on corporations and the rich.

The package looks to create millions of construction, skilled trades, and engineering jobs to build new infrastructure and a clean energy economy.

According to the White House website, the bill would create millions of jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure – from roads and bridges to green spaces and water systems to electricity grids and universal broadband – to lay a new foundation for sustainable growth, compete in the global economy, withstand the impacts of climate change, and improve public health, including access to clean air and clean water.

On the green front, Biden’s proposed package would help the power sector to move to generate clean electricity to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. This will enable the country to meet the threat of climate change while creating millions of jobs.

The plan would spur innovation to, “drive dramatic cost reductions in critical clean energy technologies, including battery storage, negative emissions technologies, the next generation of building materials, renewable hydrogen, and advanced nuclear – and rapidly commercialize them, ensuring that those new technologies are made in America.”

Several other intended benefits of the package can be read here.

Offshore Wind, Decarbonization and the Grid

Among other technologies, Biden’s infrastructure package sets a target of 30 gigawatts (GWs) of offshore wind power production that will hopefully drive billions in investment and create jobs while tackling climate change. For reference, 30 GWs of generation capacity is roughly enough to power about 10 million homes for a year.

Europe has already undergone a boom in turbine construction in recent years, while the U.S. has struggled. In 2020, the U.S. commissioned its second offshore wind project – the 12MW Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Farm. This takes cumulative offshore wind capacity in the U.S. to only 42MW.

Another area of focus would be in decarbonization technology to remove harmful greenhouse gas carbons from the atmosphere. The proposed legislation should drive more than $12 billion a year in capital investment in the sector while creating tens of thousands of jobs. The Department of Energy will provide access to $3bn in funding through a loan guarantee program.

According to the administration, the creation and implementation of renewable energy technology will lead to the creation of many new jobs. The White House said the new target would create 44,000 jobs in offshore wind and another 33,000 in support sectors by 2030.

In addition to green energy initiatives, the proposed legislation would help reshape the nation’s electrical grid to become more resilient and cleaner. Today’s electrical power grid dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn’t expected to operate as-is for more than 50 years. Indeed, the US energy infrastructure scored a C- on the U.S. Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial report card.

The fragileness of the existing grid has been made evident by recent failures, e.g., the fires and heatwaves in western states that led to rolling blackouts last summer in California, and a cold snap in the southern states that led to deadly power outages in Texas.

Smart Cities

Companies in many sectors are poised to benefit from the proposed legislation. One such vendor in the smart-cities space is Derq, an MIT-spin-off with a platform powered by AI and predictive analytics. The spin-off is partnering with Control Technologies Group (CT Group), a large U.S. distributor of traffic signal control and intelligent transportation systems (ITS) equipment per a multi-year distribution agreement. CT Group will be distributing DERQ’s AI video analytics solutions for connected roads and vehicles as well as traffic and safety insights across its wide network in the US.  

The demand for video analytics spans several domains including safety analytics, traffic analytics, and connected vehicle (CV) applications. Combining both companies' offerings will further build a unique integrated platform that includes traffic signal control, ITS equipment, road sensors, and software applications.  

The goal is to use a real-time perception and connectivity AI platform – like the one from Derq – to aggregate data from different sources such as traffic sensors, signal controllers, and connected infrastructure. The platform would then use AI to extract real-time intelligence from the data, enabling computer-aided verification applications as well as other safety and traffic insights.

Such an AI-based platform could work well with smart intersection technology in the connected vehicle arena, which is where the CT Group plays.

Other areas where smart infrastructure technologies play a part are public transportation, public safety, positive environmental usage based on data analysis and feedback, and smart city implementations.

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Derq, Used with Permission)

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

Is Data Analytics the Future of Manufacturing?

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Manufacturers are beginning to utilize artificial intelligence (AI) to support plant optimization. IoT sensors send data on the vibrations and temperature of machines to the cloud where AI algorithms compare the data to a growing database of machine signatures. Each machine has its own vibration and temperature signature. Based on this, the system can predict if a machine is going to break before it does. The system can make recommendations on what maintenance is required to prevent unplanned downtime.

Augury is a company that utilizes AI to analyze data from IoT sensors. “Our job is to make production lines more reliable. We offer a full turnkey system for machine health. That includes the sensors, connectivity, and the data algorithms,” Saar Yoskovitz, CEO of Augury, told Design News.We use one type of sensor with different technologies, including vibration, magnetic, and temperature. It’s a holistic system for mechanical and electrical equipment such as drives and motors. It examines the health of the hardware using artificial intelligence software. The system covers 80% of the machines in the process industries.”

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Augury sensors gather machine data and send it to the cloud for AI-based data analysis.

Part of the value of the system is its ability to communicate with plant personnel. “More than just diagnosing and sending the alert, the system makes sure you act on the alerts. The people on the production line receive plain English descriptions of the problem,” said Yoskovitz. “The alert explains what they need to do to fix the equipment. It also explains how much time the hardware has before it fails. For the more experienced technician, we provide a greater degree of analysis.”

Reading the Needs of the Machines

The challenge for data analytics is its ability to manage the complexity of multiple machines. Each machine needs to perform optimally for the production line to run efficiently. “On the production lines, these machines are complex. You may have a motor that is dying, and you need to replace a bearing or add more oil. You may need to align the machine or open or close a valve. With the more complex machines, you need operational context,” said Yoskovitz. “This is where the AI is going. Maybe the equipment is vibrating because the viscosity is too high. Or maybe the raw material is different. The analytical tool helps the advanced engineer pinpoint where the issue is.”

For data analytics to function well is has to connect and share data from disparate systems. “The AI software analyzes the performance of each machine. The humidity outside may change the machine’s behavior. You have tools for production – MES and ERP – and you have tools for assets, the machine asset performance tools,” said Yoskovitz. “The link between these two tools is the predictive maintenance system. It can look at the same data as the control system. In the past, the systems have had competing incentives. We want to align the two on data.”

The Benefit is Productivity and Agility.

Beyond simply keeping the machines in decent running order, the data analytics also can analyze the optimal performance of the overall line. “Back in the 00s, sales and marketing looked at revenues. Now, revenue is seen as a lagging indicator. The leading indicators now may be the number of phone calls,” said Yoskovitz. “Likewise, we have tools to look at real-time indicators of production. Technology has changed how we work to be more productive. We’re using the data to bring greater efficiency.”

So much of machine health and overall value comes down to whether plant operators can predict performance. “When you look at the production lines, you’re looking at productivity and efficiency. Predictability is the key. Are the machines working today? Are they working all this week? Will they work next week?” said Yoskovitz. “If you have good data, you can be more agile. You can switch between lines easier. You can quickly recover from mistakes. Agility is key. The data gives you predictability and agility.”

Variability Becomes the Goal

A well-operating plant can do more than simply run according to plan. Predicability and agility can support variability. “When the factory can quickly turnover ques or recipes, you’ll be more productive. If you have 100 recipes for the product, predictability lets you correlate the mechanical aspects of production,” said Yoskovitz. “Maybe you can adjust the recipe to make it more efficient, or maybe you can use the data to determine what product line would work best for a particular recipe. These choices become an algorithm. We can connect to the operational data to pull in the results and offer high-level insight.”

The AI data analytics can become a template for optimal performance that can be transported to other plants, a kind of bast-practices in a box. “Data can be used to determine what additional assets you acquire. What assets will match your customer’s needs? We can use AI to replicate increased capacity and throughput,” said Yoskovitz. “If we can replicate it in one facility, we can do it at the other 20 facilities. Maybe you won’t have to build a new facility. Using data for internal benchmarking can be huge.”

Rob Spiegel has covered manufacturing for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include automation, supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.