Android hardware and software are likely to play an increasing role in embedded system design as companies migrate toward tablets and away from custom embedded systems. Product development experts James H. Bleck, the founder and president of Bleck Design Group, and Matthew Hickcox, president, Odic Inc., asked BIOMEDevice Boston attendees this question during an April 26 presentation: “Why merge custom displays, touch panels, a processor board, and operating system when you can buy Android tablets for $150 to $300 in low volumes?”
Bleck, whose firm provides industrial design and engineering for medical-, laboratory-, and business-device companies, pointed out that tablet sales are on track to surpass PC sales and have achieved widespread consumer acceptance. But the main advantage for using tablets in embedded designs is the low cost and their ability to enable rapid development cycles. On one project, Bleck said, he went from concept to hardware in 12 weeks using Android technology. It's difficult to argue that one should integrate a text display and membrane keyboard when a tablet can handle the interface for you, he said, adding, “Our business is becoming things hooked to tablets.”
And for applications where it might not be appropriate to hook something to a tablet, he said that you can embed Android technology into your device by purchasing circuit boards or even individual components that can implement Android functionality. Moreover, development tools are plentiful and free.
Hickcox, whose firm designs hardware, firmware, and software, noted that people experienced in embedded system design might be hesitant to abandon their tried and true approaches, but even the best embedded designs reach an end-of-life within 10 years as components are no longer available. At that point, it might be time to retrain and move in the Android direction.
Bleck noted that many medical applications wouldn't subject a tablet to the abusive treatment that only a Toughbook might withstand. In fact, he cited research showing that 27% of primary care providers already have tablets, and 64% have smart phones.
Data security can be a concern in medical applications, but Bleck pointed out that Motorola already supports compliance with the security requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). As Motorola says of its Android products, “Motorola’s mobile ecosystem and devices are designed with security features that actually assist your organization in meeting the technical specifications required for HIPAA compliance, while providing the flexibility needed to address internal policies and standards that your organization currently has or plans to put in place.”
Bleck said the potential savings of employing Android over a custom embedded design might be as much as $34,000 for 200 devices per year and much higher at higher volumes. And an Android-based device can save customers money as well, making external computers and oscilloscopes unnecessary.