Trends in prototypes

05 January 2009

Susan Mucha

I thought focusing on technology issues might be a good way to start the year. I’ve interviewed Duane Benson, the marketing manager at Portland, Ore.-based Screaming Circuits.

Screaming Circuits specializes in quickturn prototypes and sees a wide variety of technology trends.

What are the key trends you’ve been seeing in prototypes this year?
Benson: There is increasing use of microcontrollers, embedded systems and robotics-oriented products. We are seeing larger microcontrollers such ARM 32bit RISC processors and more complex microcontrollers. Designs that used to have an 8bit microcontroller now have a 32bit ARM. Designs formerly without microcontrollers now have an 8bit controller.

How does this relate to product applications?
Benson: Robotics is one application where we are seeing increasing complexity. Human interface devices which formerly used a mechanical switch are now a microcontroller-driven automated switch. In industrial products, remote sensors are now getting embedded intelligence. Automotive electronics continue to increase in use of microcontrollers. Wireless isn’t a new trend, but wireless Bluetooth and Zigbee are continuing to go into more products.

How does that drive challenges in prototyping?
The short answer is that a broader range of engineering expertise is required for product applications not previously considered complex. In some case, this complexity is driven by the components themselves, but in other cases it is more the mix of skills required to support the product. The engineering community has typically trained in specific disciplines, but now the skills requirements are converging so engineers must have some familiarity with disciplines outside their core expertise. This applies both in product development and in the prototyping process.

For example, we see a lot of prototypes which involve embedded systems or robotics-oriented products. This requires greater support infrastructure for software development. Hardware engineers need to have some software expertise to work with embedded systems.

Point of load power is also a growing area of focus because of the trend toward lower power and higher speed in products. To reduce the power consumption of microcontrollers, vendors are having them run at lower voltages. Microcontrollers are now running down at 3V or 1.8V power, but many other support components still use 5V logic. The end result is that you have to manage voltages and interface between different voltages. Such designs may need logic level converters.

The trend toward greater use of active control also drives greater use of wireless technology to allow devices to communicate easily. Since wireless technologies are often driven with microcontroller firmware, once again engineering infrastructure needs to have both software and hardware expertise. Mixed signal technologies also come into play here. Wireless is analog. A lot of digital engineers were told analog was a dying technology when they were in school. In mixed signal technology, you need to have both analog and digital expertise. Layout is critical with high frequency analog. In embedded controls with analog radios, impedance control on the PCBA is very important, as it can generate interference between components and ground planes. A mistake in layout as simple as orienting the component in the wrong direction can cut the signal range in half.

Reprogrammable memory use is also expanding. Typically, this drives parts with small footprints, voltage issues, and the requirement to interface with varying voltages. From a prototype standpoint, there must be appropriate connectors to update the flash memory and the expertise to use flash properly. Design for manufacturability and testability also comes into play.

So what is your advice to engineering teams?
Benson: If you have spare time on your hands, improve your range of engineering skills. The days of being just a hardware engineer, a digital engineer, etc. are gone. If you outsource prototypes, evaluate your supplier for the internal support infrastructure needed for your product application. Prototyping is a lot more than stuffing boards these days. Finally, tap your prototype house’s expertise. One of the other trends we’ve seen is shorter design cycles combined with faster introduction of new technology. There is nothing worse than a design cycle slowed by learning curve layout mistakes that could have been avoided with a five-minute conversation with a prototyping engineer.

For more of Duane’s shared expertise, visit the Screaming Circuits’ blog.

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