The rise of heterogeneous devices – and the people problem...

Author : Colin Funnell | Development Engineer | Hitex

01 February 2021

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Smaller, faster, better has been the mantra across all fields of electronic engineering for decades. But as Colin Funnell, Development Engineer at embedded systems expert, Hitex explains here, these days, this imperative has to go even further: smaller, faster, better and all in one device – necessitating all engineering disciplines working seamlessly together as one unit...

The full version of this article was originally featured in the February 2021 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Heterogeneous systems (systems comprising of diverse parts) have been part of electronic engineering since the dawn of the integrated circuit. After the CPU, along came the microcontroller to really ruffle feathers – a software system doing low-level hardware interaction in real-time. Should hardware or software teams be responsible for it? Heck, for complex software, we could add a dedicated microprocessor too. High-speed logic can be done in an FPGA. RF communication? Yes, please. And Marketing needs an AI angle too...  

These engineering disciplines are being thrown together into single devices. Is the day of applying power to a ‘wonder-chip’ nearly here? The ultimate dream perhaps, and therein lies one of the biggest difficulties – how to develop and debug an entire system in a single chip. The technology may not be the problem...

It seems like natural progression – cramming more and more into increasingly capable devices. Transistor sizes shrink, silicon becomes more turnkey and you get more device for your buck. What doesn’t shrink, however, is the expertise required to develop complex devices.

Systems used to be designed by groups of specialist engineers, all of which designed and proved that their bit works. But initially, the overall system never did. Integration and test engineers waited patiently for the developers to resolve the issue – but everyone knew the person investigating would be lumbered with a laborious, essential task, delving into engineering disciplines outside their comfort zone to trace problems through. Toes get trodden on, hidden code gets picked apart, untouchable historic designs questioned – all in the name of product development. Time for transparency, not ego.

At least with a physically large design you can probe for signals and track events on various pieces of test equipment. Now that it is going to be under the bonnet of one chip, it’s a different game.

Read the full article in EPDT's February 2021 issue...


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