Using proven designs in a modular context allows sophisticated electronic products to be completed quickly and at reduced cost. However, depending on the quality and the source of the chosen solutions, developers may need to factorin extra time and engineering effort to meet all of the requirements for a manufacturable and marketable end product.
Time-to-market is arguably more important than some aspects of the feature set when determining the fortunes of new high-tech products. With no time to laboriously redesign basic functions that don't excite buyers, product developers are increasingly re-implementing existing designs and modules. Then, they will be able to devote that added time to perfecting the more compelling features that usually exist at the application level.
We're seeing an expanding range of possible sources for reusable designs. For example, they may already exist within the OEM organisation, having been developed for a previous product. Tools and techniques for compiling, storing, and tracking such designs for later reuse are currently the subject of discussion and development throughout industry and academia.
On the other hand, many third parties, including component vendors and dedicated IP developers, also offer shrink-wrapped modular solutions to certain common features and capabilities. It's possible to implement Bluetooth connectivity, for example, using a single surfacemount device containing the RF and baseband stages, as well as an integrated antenna. The availability of a modular solution to implementing an industry standard such as Bluetooth (or GSM or ZigBee) greatly simplifies board design, reduces timeto- market, and can help shrink the per unit cost of the end product. In very high volumes, the cost-per-unit savings are diminished, but the advantages of a short time-to-market remain as valid and persuasive as ever.
Solutions to a variety of functions are also available as a set of software or firmware. In addition, many vendors of components or system solutions publish reference designs, which may come in a range of possible formats. Yet another example could be a notational outline or schematic appearing in an application note.
TAKING THE SHORTCUTS
Each of these sources of existing designs can offer product developers a shortcut. However, reference designs and application notes are usually conceived to showcase some aspect of the vendor's service or special competency rather than offer a fully developed solution. An important point to bear in mind, therefore, is that designs found in these various sources may be able to help shortcut a subset of the overall product design effort. However, that they're not necessarily proven.
But, finding a suitable preexisting design isn't the only responsibility weighing on the product designer's shoulders. It must still be integrated with the overall circuit design, such as paying attention to voltage levels, input and output signal properties, and antenna performance and EMC specifications, among other aspects. Although design reuse can eliminate duplication of engineering effort, modular design doesn't obviate the need for design skills to be brought to bear upon a design challenge.
The many reference designs that are freely available from vendors of ICs or design IP highlight the point. Vendors will typically publish a reference design to demonstrate their own capabilities, and attract potential customers by offering a quick solution. These run the entire gamut, from small telemetry solutions to full wireless telephony platforms.
However, no standards or accepted principles govern what constitutes a reference design. The solution offered may comprise a basic schematic and board layout, or may extend to a more or less complete bill of materials, possibly accompanied by CAD files capable of solving PCB fabrication, assembly automation, and test-development challenges.
It's also important to bear in mind that a reference design is usually not created with any real product specification in mind. An IC vendor, for example, may offer a reference design to demonstrate the core attractions of a chipset or integrated solution.
While the core components are usually well developed and robust, the selection and layout of the surrounding components often don't bear closer scrutiny. Their overall impact on the cost, manufacturability, or reliability of the end product, for instance, often isn't a consideration for those who develop the design- particularly if it's to be offered free of charge.
There's even less likelihood that the reference design will meet the customer designer's own unique specification, particularly in relation to aspects such as power consumption and operating temperature, as well as finer points like component lead-times. The challenges surrounding certification to applicable safety, EMC, or quality standards may also be left unaddressed. Furthermore, there's the requirement that the enclosure housing will dictate the physical size and configuration of any electronic system needing circuit layouts tailored to suit the product.
This isn't to negate the value of a reference design. They can and do provide quick and easy answers to many challenges. However, a reference design should be viewed as a solution in principle. Product developers expecting to bypass the detailed challenges involved in developing a truly market-ready product, without adding further engineering effort, will most likely be disappointed.
Application notes, such as those produced by semiconductor manufacturers, are often an even more theoretical resource. These are almost exclusively geared toward demonstrating how a particular IC or chipset solution can be used, and they usually make no attempt to address important questions such as controlling costs or maximising reliability. Although application notes, including circuit examples and integration guidelines, are an essential part of the support offered by an IC vendor to its customers, they can't be regarded as a complete solution. The product developer must take the responsibility to meet all of the factors relevant to series production.
More should be expected of reusable designs offered by a design services partner, though. Triteq's telematics platform is one such an example. The platform enables a quick and highly optimised solution for developing location and tracking products. It comprises all of the applicable communication, location, system control, management, and power-supply technologies, as well as core code modules for location-based capabilities such as real-time location tracking and geo-fencing. The figure shows the conceptual block diagram.
Where this solution differs from most reference designs or design platforms is that the product specification comes first. Triteq develops the overall product specification, working with the customer, and then configures the appropriate system modules from the telematics platform to meet that particular specification. Aspects such as manufacturability, cost engineering, testability, and reliability are addressed in the actual implementation.
The company takes the same approach when designing other functions (for example, power control and battery management) into customers' projects. These functions can be taken directly from Triteq's libraries and applied using the most suitable components and layout to meet the overall specifications for the product.
While the technology functions are important to the design, it's also essential that any product development is carried out within a framework of a design procedure to ensure compliance with the customer, product, and end-user requirements. To that end, Triteq established an electronic documentation system that allows the design process to be managed to ISO approved standards, providing a source of common documentation and a cost-effective design route for each project.
All of these sources of existing designs can unlock valuable reductions in development costs and time-to-market. On top of that, they can free engineering resources to create the truly innovative features, features that are necessary to turn an ordinary gadget or accessory into becoming the latest "must have" object of desire.
Successful reuse of existing designs requires a considered approach. Designers need to be aware of the wider aspects of developing a production-ready design, which are often not addressed. Another factor to bear in mind is that identifying suitable modules from the many reference designs and IP offerings produced by third parties is a skill in itself.
Nonetheless, choosing and using proven designs to gain a competitive advantage isn't a "no brainer." Design reuse permeates virtually every aspect of product development. Therefore, those that apply it the most intelligently will garner the greatest benefits.