The Design or Buy Dilemma - Making the Case for SoMs

Author : Ohad Yaniv, CEO of Variscite

01 October 2023

Figure 1: An example of a modern SoM - the industrial-grade VAR-SOM-AM62 from Variscite
Figure 1: An example of a modern SoM - the industrial-grade VAR-SOM-AM62 from Variscite

In today's fast-paced and competitive business landscape, companies across all industries are striving to bring innovative products to market as quickly and efficiently as possible. The traditional strategy of developing discrete electronic solutions in-house often exposes such companies to long and expensive product development processes.

To overcome these issues, an increasing number of them are now turning to a system-on-module (SoM) approach instead, as this is helping to streamline their development processes.

In simple terms, a SoM is a small-scale integrated computing solution that encapsulates critical electronic components (such as processors, memory, etc.), with peripheral interfaces integrated into a carrier board. Each SoM will be designed to serve as the core processing unit for the embedded system it is incorporated into, providing a ready-to-use and pre-validated foundation accompanied by relevant software. These units are widely deployed in a broad array of applications - including healthcare, smart cities, home automation, transportation, energy and industrial control. 

The application of SoMs
To understand how prevalent SoM technology is now becoming, it is worth looking at a few more in-depth use case examples.

The employment of SoMs in a digital signage context is certainly worth mentioning. Here they can enable dynamic content display and remote management features. Through their usage, businesses can render engaging and interactive visual content while expending only minimal engineering effort. Deployments of this kind can be seen in elevators, at public transport hubs, office waiting areas, etc. 

SoMs can also play a pivotal role in modern point-of-sales (PoS) systems, facilitating quick and secure payment processing. By leveraging a SoM-based platform, retailers can customise their PoS solutions to meet the specific requirements of particular sectors. 

Likewise, the kiosks situated in public places, hotels, airports and suchlike are also an important market for SoMs. Here they offer the functionality needed for intuitive touchscreen interfacing, data processing and multimedia capabilities - so information can be provided to users in the most convenient way.

Figure 2: The DART-MX8M-MINI SoM
Figure 2: The DART-MX8M-MINI SoM

Charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) feature extensive use of SoM technology. These stations require a unique set of features, like extreme temperature support (due to their outdoor settings), different types of connectivity (such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular), plus graphic accelerators for their human machine interfaces (HMIs). 

With respect to industrial equipment, SoMs are widely utilised in relation to programmable logic controllers (PLCs), Industrial IoT (IIoT) gateways and HMIs. They enable seamless integration of sensors, actuators and communication elements, making automation systems effective and adaptable. They can contribute to embedded vision systems, for quality control, process inspection and even surveillance purposes - enabling real-time image and data handling, so that productivity can be improved and wastage avoided.

SoM practicalities 
In a highly competitive commercial landscape, embracing SoMs can be strategically pertinent. As well as shortening the development process and accelerating time-to-market, other key factors driving widespread adoption of SoMs include reducing the risks associated with development projects and the flexibility benefits that they offer. This next section will look at each of these in greater detail.

First, let’s discuss the time-to-market. As already outlined attempting to develop discrete electronic solutions in-house can be time consuming - with the designing, prototyping and subsequent testing of all the various components being needed. In contrast, SoMs provide a pre-designed and pre-tested foundation to build upon, significantly reducing the engineering resource allocation. They also mean that the expertise of a company’s technical staff can be focused on the areas where they can make most differentiation to the end-product, meaning that it will have a better-defined competitive edge and gain greater market share.

Risk mitigation is another important consideration. In-house development of single board computers (SBCs) comes with certain inherent risks. These include the uncovering of design flaws that will then need to be dealt with (thereby putting the project end date back and meaning that cost penalties are accrued), software bugs, compatibility issues, etc. Already established technological speaking and sold in large quantities, SoMs are able to present field-proven alternatives that mean the threat posed by such delays can be eliminated. Reputable SoM providers conduct rigorous testing and validation to meet strict global standards before releasing their modules, thus allaying concerns that the system they are integrated into won’t perform as expected.

Taking a real-life occurrence, a medical device manufacturer was looking to develop an innovative smart nursing station. This involved the integration of sensors and communication elements. Given the critical nature of the application, zero tolerance of malfunctions was mandated. The project encountered significant setbacks in its custom development, because of the need to check each component part in accordance with medical standards compliance. Facing having to deal with a lengthy component list and a complex assembly process, the company instead opted to switch to a ISO13485-certified medical-grade SoM. This decision meant that the device could be brought to market on schedule.

Figure 3: The compact DART-6UL SoM
Figure 3: The compact DART-6UL SoM

Despite being pre-designed, SoMs still offer a high degree of design flexibility. Companies can customise carrier boards, remove peripherals and implement proprietary features without delving into the complexities of core processing elements. In addition, SoM providers allow some level of module customisation plus pin-compatibility with a range of other units. This modularity allows for easy scalability and adaptability, enabling companies to address diverse market needs with minimal engineering effort and make upgrades where necessary.

Another real-life example is of a company that were looking to develop a 3-tier series of industrial devices, with each device having different performance levels and feature sets. Instead of designing these products from the ground up, it employed 3 SoM variations that could all fit on identical format carrier boards. This approach not only sped up the development process, but also enabled a range of devices to be brought to market simultaneously, thus catering to diverse user requirements.

In-house electronic development often requires substantial expertise across various domains, which may prove difficult for small and medium-sized companies. Such companies may face challenges in hiring and retaining specialised talent. By utilising SoMs, they can tap into the expertise of the provider's engineering team, receiving ongoing support throughout the product development lifecycle.

An illustration of this is seen in the following example. An IIoT product manufacturer was developing a complex solution, but lacked the engineering knowhow in specific areas, like thermal management and power optimisation. By adopting a SoM-based product strategy, its able to gain access to the SoM provider’s highly experienced engineering staff, who provided valuable guidance and design recommendations, resulting in a successful outcome.

SoM strategy
Choosing the right SoM provider is crucial for a product manufacturer, as it can directly impact on whether product development objectives are adequately met. When evaluating SoM providers, the following key factors should be considered: Overall quality, technical support with access to experienced engineers, market longevity, customisation options, compliance and standard certificates, short lead times and attractive pricing, plus company stability and future outlook.

As the demand for complex and cutting-edge electronic products continues to rise, companies are seeking ways to get their products to market quicker and gain an advantage over their rivals. SoMs have emerged as a compelling way of doing this. By selecting pre-designed and validated hardware and software, companies can complete development projects faster, mitigate development risks and enhance design flexibility. The diverse set of use cases cited here provide concrete evidence of the benefits that SoMs offer to a multitude of industries.

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