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I’ve tried out Gumstix’s Geppetto (see Game Changing Geppetto Builds ARM-Based Systems) and was very impressed, so I wanted to chat with its designers. I talked with Gumstix’s W. Gordon Kruberg and Andrew Simpson about their rapid prototyping system and how it works to quickly deliver complete custom systems based on Gumstix modules.
Wong: Why should designers use modules to solve their problems, and what are the challenges in designing a custom embedded solution?
Gumstix: Designing an embedded solution is no simple task. Creating even a prototype board typically consists of a months-long process of designing, routing, laying out, and testing. Computers-on-module (COMs) work with expansion boards to reduce the difficulty, time, and cost involved in embedded design. COMs move the most complicated core hardware components of the device onto a module with standardized connectors, thus giving developers the essential features they need while saving them the hassle involved in manually incorporating the equivalent hardware into their designs.
Computers-on-module cut time-to-market by shifting the design focus from the core components, such as the processor, RAM, and even Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, to a design’s own specifications and related components. With COMs, developers do not worry about the critical connections between core components, and instead can start breaking out the standardized pins to the peripherals they need for their specific design. If, later in the design, something changes, the components on the COM stay the same and the designer needs only to change the components they have added.
Wong: What types of modules does Gumstix provide?
Gumstix: Gumstix provides Linux-based computers-on-module, based on Texas Instruments’ Open Multimedia Applications Platform (OMAP), like the Gumstix DuoVero (Fig. 1) in addition to offering a wide range of open-source expansion boards useful for development. An advantage of this model is the option for developers to create their own derivative expansion boards quickly, easily, and affordably in exactly the quantity they need. Designing an original expansion board naturally requires a larger investment of time, but still offers considerable savings as compared to a single-board design.
Such was the case for Powertech Automation Solutions, a telecommunications equipment monitoring provider in India. Powertech reduced development time by six months and saved $50,000 by using COMs. “The typical vendor model is to sell you high-priced prototype boards, charge you upfront costs for customization, and then require minimum orders of at least 1000 boards,” said Ashish Sirasao, Powertech’s CTO. “But this can cost you $100,000 or more of upfront investment. What if you need to make a small change? Or you don’t need 1000 boards? This is a very risky proposition, especially during the early development phase.”
Wong: Starting with a module is great, and the standard carrier boards you provide may be sufficient for some projects. The problem is that custom carrier board design is still a challenge. How are you addressing this issue?
Gumstix: We understand the challenges involved in creating carrier boards because we have done so much of it already. Much of the work was the same for the boards we created, so we streamlined the design process. It worked so well that we polished it so others could use it, too. The result was Geppetto.
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Geppetto is a powerful platform for designing build-to-order embedded devices using modules. Geppetto extends the COM and expansion board model by providing an easy way to create expansion boards without specialized knowledge of electronic design and is currently the only design application of its kind. Just as COMs remove an embedded computer’s core components from the designer’s mind, Geppetto removes the complicated schematic and layout creation process, translating the specifications of an embedded computer into easy to work with modules.
This benefits even those designers with experience in electronic design as it greatly accelerates expansion board development time, and thus overall time-to-market. Designing a complete embedded solution with Geppetto’s modules can take as little as 15 minutes. Delivery of a manufactured solution is only three weeks. Compared to the typical three-months long process of designing a board by alternate means, the use of Geppetto-designed expansion boards with COMs offers an incredible savings in both time and cost.
Wong: So what does the interface look like and how does it work?
Gumstix: Designing a modular solution with Geppetto is as simple as dragging and dropping the components needed for a design as shown by the red sections. Red indicates that you have placed a module on the board, but that you need to create a connection to make it work properly (Fig. 2).
When the board is green, everything is working well together (Fig. 3). Individual components will change from red to green as all of their connections are completed. The connection is done through popup menus.
Note that the presentation does not show the actual wiring between devices placed on the board. This is handled transparently to the user. The clearances and the layers within the board allow all routing to take place regardless of how the devices are placed on the board. Of course, they cannot overlap, but Geppetto lets you know about that as well.
Wong: So how do you order your newly designed board?
Gumstix: Simply add it to your cart and you’re ready to order (Fig. 4).
Wong: I’ve played with Geppetto, so I know how quickly a carrier board design can be created. Do you have to start from scratch with a design?
Gumstix: We have an extensive library of ready-to-go, open-source expansion boards, combined with the ability to quickly create custom boards quickly and easily from scratch with Geppetto.
Wong: Geppetto cuts time to create and deliver a solution, but what about the cost?
Gumstix: COMs do reduce the difficulty and cost involved in delivering a solution, but that is only half of the solution. Geppetto helps to deliver the other half by providing a low fixed cost per board once the design is done. This can dramatically cut time-to-market while delivering solutions under budget.
W. Gordon Kruberg, president and CEO of Gumstix, founded the company in 2003. He has been involved in more than 30 U.S.-based companies as a venture investor, member of the board of directors, or executive team, including chairman, CEO, or president. Prior to founding Gumstix, He was CEO of Deersoft, acquired by Network Associates in 2002. His background also includes seven years with Grace Horn Ventures, managing investments in software, biotechnology, and medical high-technology startups. He holds an AB degree in human biology, an MS degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University, and an MD degree from Northwestern University.
Andrew Simpsonis a content developer and writer at Gumstix. He has an avid interest in technology and open-source development. Since joining Gumstix in 2012, he has published numerous articles and tutorials on embedded systems. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of British Columbia.