The internet of things is as much of a greenfield opportunity for established solution providers as it is for the next up-and-coming hardware startup. Whether adding connectivity to an existing product or creating a brand-new application altogether, the need to innovate and iterate quickly is paramount.
Rapid prototyping and iteration is not a new concept, but is a development model that was typically reserved for software developers. For software products, services and applications that are built 100% with code, the ability to iterate quickly, distribute betas and implement new features based on early user feedback is simple. Just make a handful of modifications to a few lines of code, recompile a new package and upload it to the web for instant distribution. For software, the cycle for iteration is fast and tight-looped.
Hardware products have not typically been able to benefit from this level of rapid iterative development. But the competitive landscape of IoT has hardware solution providers seeking ways to mirror software’s model, allocating R&D resources to the right products so that they can get to market faster and capture the opportunity first. Being first to market allows IoT solution providers to establish themselves as a leader in the space, digging their heels in the ground as they build out their connected portfolio.
A few things are happening in the industry to enable the rapid iteration and prototyping of embedded hardware products.
For one, crowdfunding is starting to mature as a practical means for validating concepts and ensuring that there is a market for a minimum viable product. Through crowdfunding, hardware developers have the ability to keep early adopters in the loop and involved as they iterate toward production. Potential customers use their dollars to validate a concept or product idea, and in exchange have the ability to influence and fine-tune the product through feedback to ensure that it meets their needs once it is released. This powerful concept helps ensure that the R&D spent to bring a new hardware product to life is not a wasted investment, since potential customers were given the opportunity to validate design decisions or communicate feedback every step of the way.
The second trend enabling the rapid prototyping of hardware is that embedded microcontrollers (MCUs) are getting more powerful, providing more memory and resources to enable software abstraction. Looking back five to 10 years ago, code density was critical; the small memory footprint of embedded MCUs could not accommodate the additional size introduced by software encapsulation and abstraction.
While still a concern for embedded developers today, the 32-bit Arm MCU world is providing devices capable of more than a million instructions per second, more memory and more feature-rich software development kits (SDKs). With more capable devices at their disposal, semiconductor vendors can provide more complete SDKs, with abstracted, modular software that enables developers to create innovative applications rather than writing lower-level device drivers. As the memory-size-to-dollar-ratio continues to grow, the ease of use enabled by abstracted software outweighs the potential downside of increased code size.
Software abstraction enables a few things for rapid prototyping with hardware. First and foremost, again, is ease of use. Abstracted software means the encapsulation of complex low-level programming of hardware-specific registers inside of more understandable APIs. These APIs can be more functional and intuitive as opposed to writing 1s and 0s into low-level registers, enabling developers to more quickly harness the features of an embedded MCU to implement their application’s requirements.
Additionally, software abstraction means more portable, modular code. This is an important aspect for rapid iteration because it means that code can be reused. If algorithms or application logic previously written for an earlier project are relevant for a next-generation product, software abstraction makes it easier to modularize and reuse that code. Software reuse means that developers can focus on other aspects of their application, and bring new features that are more valuable to their end users.
The third trend enabling rapid prototyping with hardware is plug-and-play hardware building blocks. Semiconductor vendors such as Texas Instruments (TI) are bringing to market low-cost, modular hardware kits like the TI LaunchPad development ecosystem. Through LaunchPad kits and BoosterPack plug-in boards, developers can create custom combinations of boards that stack on top of each other for faster hardware system design. These modular plug-in boards encapsulate complex subsystems such as wireless radios and antennas, sensors, analog front ends, power-management circuitry and more. Vendors are also providing pre-certified radio modules that provide a simple surface-mountable footprint, which encapsulates the radio, transceiver, antennas and more inside of a pre-certified cage, making it easier than ever to add wireless connectivity to any system.
For internet-connected products, being able to encapsulate intimidating radio circuitry and antenna design is a powerful enabler and time-saver. Developers have the ability to mix and match these hardware building blocks, and quickly build out complex systems without having to spin their own custom printed circuit board (PCB). They can then use these off-the-shelf modular hardware kits to start writing their software.
Using modularly connected hardware kits along with early software builds means that developers can get customer feedback as soon as possible and understand their priorities early, pivoting as needed to ensure a product-market fit before investing in a concept. These hardware development kits are typically open source, allowing developers to copy and paste tried-and-true subsystem designs into their custom PCBs once they are ready.
Given these three trends, embedded hardware developers can now — more than ever — gauge a potential market sooner through rapid prototyping and iteration. With the maturity of crowdfunding, easier to use abstracted software and low-cost hardware building blocks, developers can engage with their customers before releasing a single product to market.
This model makes potential customers an integral part of the development cycle, closing the feedback loop much earlier than previously possible with hardware. It’s a win-win for both hardware manufacturers and the ultimate end user.
Adopting rapid prototyping methodologies into hardware development is key for solution providers looking to capture their share of the 25 billion connected devices that could exist by the end of this decade.
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