June 14, 2006 -- Ironically, a very mature consumer product sector long ago adopted a design strategy now just being recognized as equally valid for consumer electronics. For decades auto makers’ product lines have shared essentially identical chassis designs to cut development time as well as maintain a competitive edge. By changing bodywork, engines and trim on an essentially common vehicle chassis, automotive engineers create four-door sedans, sporty coupes, SUVs and minivans. Design and common parts investments are amortized over multiple models and development time-to-market for the entire product line is substantially reduced versus a one-at-a-time approach. Furthermore, several model design refreshes are applied to the same chassis platform during its extended production life.
What if an entire consumer electronics product line could be developed rapidly and was able to react in weeks to customer feedback and market changes by delivering differentiated feature sets ahead of the competition? What if features could be tailored based on a single, basic electronic platform design for multiple users, price points or differing tastes and market geographies? Today this is clearly a capability and emerging as another competitive advantage for savvy CE product developers.
Across all electronics manufacturing and particularly in CE sectors, escalating competition is forcing product designers to re-evaluate development models. This trend is being addressed by the recent proliferation of low-cost field programmable gate array (FPGA) offerings. Applying programmable logic devices to the product accelerated Blaupunkt’s development for its TravelPilot Rome automotive navigation system.
“Combining a programmable product strategy with excellent development support shortened our design time by six months and made it possible for us to meet the demanding schedule we set for the TravelPilot Rome,” said Georg Sandhaus, Blaupunkt’s director of system engineering. “We also reduced design complexity by replacing multiple standard components with a single device which eased our development effort and increased our product quality and reliability.”
“Low-cost programmable logic devices (PLDs) are used in digital TVs, DVD players, handheld media players, set-top boxes, ‘smart home’ networks, and computer peripherals,” says Danny Biran, VP marketing with San Jose, CA-based programmable logic supplier Altera. “PLD’s flexibility serves CE product developers by letting them rapidly develop new features simply by modifying the chip’s programming in their design. This enables multiple versions of the same product for different segments at introduction and gives them an option of providing new features in response to changing market demands with a minimum of additional engineering effort, as well as providing upgrades to existing products in the field. This way, CE product developers can continuously and cost-effectively refresh their product lines and provide differentiating capabilities. These can include video or audio enhancements, security functions, user-programmable functions, or even completely different modes of operation.”
By adopting a platform-based product design strategy, consumer electronics designers can set a clear path toward rapid, low-cost innovation. Equally important, a platform design strategy allows greater product differentiation with potentially increased margins. It can get products to market earlier and help keep a brand name in front of the customer with new features. Additionally, programmable logic offers a measure of risk reduction by helping obsolescence-proof a product design. Designing with a reusable electronic platform also demonstrates a company’s product roadmap, which can positively influence potential investment funding. One-product companies are less attractive to the financial community.
CE market success demands ultimate flexibility and agility in product development. Take the case of veteran mobile radio maker Tait Electronics Ltd. headquartered in Christchurch, New Zealand. The company maintains a competitive position in the global market for private mobile radios (PMR) verses giant competitors through its rapid responses to customers’ demands. When designing their latest mobile radio, one of the goals was developing a platform that was easy for third parties to integrate with, and that would form the basis of several additional products. Another key factor was the need for inherent architectural flexibility to cater to future, as yet unknown, requirements. Cost, time-to-market, processing power, component packaging, and supplier relationships were also in the overall design equation.
Tait’s use of FPGAs rather than application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) allowed the desired flexibility, albeit with some trade-offs in unit cost. Their strategy has proven effective. The TM8100 radio has exceeded company expectations as a product with which systems integrators can easily interface. Furthermore, the follow-on TM8200 family, P25 TM9100 and TP9100, were all product models derived from the original TM8100 platform design, demonstrating classic examples of the “design once, make many” strategy.
The overwhelming benefits of the platform strategy are amortizing time and financial costs over the extent of their product line. In Tait’s development scenario, the majority of required design work was accomplished for the first product.
“With proper architectural design we realized significant time savings in subsequent models,” explains Tony Berggren, technology leader with Tait. “The use of the FPGA development tools’ project revision control meant, along with easily configurable I/O, that the same core design solution could be compiled for differing product platforms and hardware requirements.”
Successful products in the CE market quickly face a flood of competitive products from a variety of manufacturers. This swift reaction causes rapid price erosion and frustrates CE product developers’ attempts to derive significant revenue from their products during their increasingly shorter life cycles.
Estimated overall development savings for the FPGA portion of the Tait redesign are in the range of 30 percent of the original effort in man-months
“As the price of FPGAs declined and performance improved, it fundamentally changed the economics of using FPGAs in embedded designs,” adds Tait’s Berggen. “We also expected that FPGAs would continue dropping in price quickly through competitive pressure and technological advancement, enabling the unit cost trade-off to be minimized early in the product family life-cycle. Overall, we estimated that the savings we gleaned in both flexibility of design and time-to-market outweighed the hard costs required to work with ASIC technology development.”
Equally important was packaging. As radios continue requiring greater functionality in ever smaller packages, component size becomes increasingly critical. A range of FPGA package options has allowed Tait to continue meeting customers’ requirements.
Early access to prototype hardware improved system stability. Engineers could exercise hardware and software more thoroughly during the development cycle. An FPGA-based design that was only partially completed provided software designers with a phased or incremental development process. These days, software development often takes up the bulk of a product’s development effort. Getting the software team off to a quick start and removing obstacles helped maximize effectiveness of the hardware/software parallel design effort.
Another clear example of out-innovating competitors with a programmable design strategy is Pinnacle Systems’ Studio MovieBox Deluxe for home movie producers. The Pinnacle product connects PCs, TVs and VCRs or camcorders for editing, playback and storage. Pinnacle used FPGA reconfigurability for multi-mode operation, depending on which video source cables are connected. The product design uses nearly one-third the logic chips than if the company had gone with a non-reconfigurable approach. Additionally, a small FPGA costing about one-fifth of the total bill of materials was used, which was well within their budget.
“Our evaluation revealed that no other solution would have achieved either cost targets or met our aggressive development schedule better than an FPGA-based design,” says Bernd Riemann, director of hardware engineering for Pinnacle Systems, Inc.
There are many paths to product development success. Applying a programmable platform strategy can demonstrably slash time-to-market and an entire product line’s development costs. For companies seeking new ways of increasing their competitive advantage, bringing programmability into the equation is essential.
Todd is senior director for Altera’s Broadcast & Consumer business unit in San Jose, Calif. He has been with Altera for nearly five years and was formerly a marketing director with Lattice Semiconductor and held other marketing and engineering roles with LSI Logic and Raytheon Semiconductor. He began his electronic engineering career in 1980 with Lockheed’s microelectronics center as a research engineer. Todd graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in Electronic Engineering augmented with numerous management and marketing post graduate courses over the years.