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Quarterly Bulletin
 
 
 
Embedded Systems - Buy or Make?
 
 

And who makes?

 

Hectronic customers are united by the fact that their products have computers embedded. Some customers have their own development resources and choose from a couple of hundred standardized products (COTS) in Hectronic’s product catalogue. Others don’t and rely on us to develop, manufacture and maintain the computer board or complete system. And then there are numerous variations in-between the two. Let’s have a closer look at the options.

 
The Finnish company Realin is specialized in sensor data management, sensor system integrations, sensor data analytics, and web applications. Neither embedded computers nor sensor technology are parts of their core competence. Cooperation with Hectronic for the required embedded computer and Pegasor to add sensor technology to measure air quality completed the system. That’s how Realin balanced make versus buy.
 

Realin Ltd

Finnish company Realin’s cloud service and HMI, Hectronic’s H1502 Box PC and the company Pegasor’s sensor system were integrated to offer real-time data to city officials in the Chinese city Langfang.

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Realin found the Hectronic H1502 Box PC in the product catalogue on the Hectronic website. It was chosen because of its processing power, connectivity and maintenance freedom. Hectronic integrated a GSM modem to adapt the H1502 to fully meet the specification from Realin. 
 
The adaptation of H1502 to match Realin’s specification is an example of the many services offer to our customers. Adaptation of standardized products is actually often an overlooked possibility. We are able to adapt our own COTS products as well as products from our suppliers. Often small modifications to hardware and software are all that are needed to meet the requirements exactly.
 
Yet other services that Hectronic offers to support our customer’s own development work are hardware design reviews, 3D printing of mechanical components, computer based flow simulation and the use of our own climate chamber for evaluation and verification of solutions for heat dissipation. A service well worth describing in detail is adaptation of BIOS. It’s often a great way to enhance functionality.
 

Possibilities from an adapted BIOS

A custom made BIOS can be used to display a splash screen during start-up, add support for various displays and graphical interfaces as well as handling power management in the processor platform. BIOS offers massive opportunities in itself by adaptations. It’s sometimes the only deliverable from Hectronic to a customer. 
 
Realin benefitted from adaptations made to a COTS product. Another customer needed to significantly decrease the power consumption in an existing design. Hectronic did just that by offering an adapted BIOS using hardware initiated so-called System Management Interrupts. The project is definitely outdated but it is included anyway because it’s such a great example on how to use BIOS adaptations. 
 
The design was based on the Celeron M/Pentium M processor and the 855GME chipset. It’s not really a low power architecture compared to platforms offered today. The platform was partially put to sleep using suspend to RAM, were woken and used for massive calculations a short period of time, and then put to sleep again. BIOS adaptation thereby enabled battery powered operation.
 

An adapted embedded BIOS saves power in existing designs

Operations in the background achieve instant exit and entry to Suspend to RAM.

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AGV Electronics is developing unmanned forklifts for industrial use. The company is in the category of customers which are not only buying a ready-made COM module but also have chosen Hectronic to develop a carrier board. COM, Computer On Module, is a board made up with the central components of the computer such as the processor, chipset and memory. The COM is mounted on the carrier board which is developed specifically to fulfill the requirements from the application.
 

Semi-custom – Combining COTS and custom made

This strategy used by AGV Electronics combines the advantages from the standardized product with the requirement to realize a solution unique to their product. The standard product COM is available right away and offers the core of the embedded system without involving complicated development. 
 
The carrier board on the other hand was custom made to meet application requirements including size, functionality and communication interfaces. A customized carrier board also offers the opportunity to integrate hardware unique to the customer’s application. Thereby the complete product is incorporated on the two boards.
 

AGV Electronics

AGV Electronics's smallest unmanned forklift is used by Orrefors Kosta Boda AB for transportation of hot glass products to cooling ovens. The largest one weighs 22 tons, loads 65 tons of steel and runs on four-wheel drive at Posco, one of the world’s biggest steel producers in Korea.

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One of the reasons for the customer to outsource development to Hectronic is often, at least partly, to avoid tedious work in sourcing components for production and product maintenance. We have the organization, contacts and a number of similar products already in production. The advantages are obvious. Development projects at Hectronic are carried out from an early stage targeted against one or two producers, which have production of boards based on the processor platform in question.
 

Full custom development and reuse of building blocks

Let’s continue browsing the alternatives ranging from buying a single component from Hectronic, such as a COM module, to turn-key solutions, meaning that when the project is completed the only thing you have to do is to put the key in the lock, of your product, so to speak. 
 
We have learnt that the semi-custom strategy using a one of our COM modules integrated with a custom-made carrier board is a way of balancing the make versus buy strategies. As volumes grow the full custom strategy may prove the better choice. It involves development of a board with both the processor platform and the components needed for functionality unique to the application. 
 
One may argue that it’s reinventing the wheel since the processor platform is already available in the shape of a COM module. It’s quite the contrary. At Hectronic, since way back, from the founding of the company actually, reuse has been a guiding principle. One of the more illustrative examples of reusing building blocks is shown below. It’s about simply copying the processor platform from the COM module and paste it onto the customized board. Thereafter it’s just to add functionality required to complete the product. At least in theory. But you understand the point I’m sure.
 

Rapid product launch through reuse of building blocks

A prototype was delivered after only two weeks. The strategy to use a well-tried existing COM module on an enlarged board surrounded by additional components and functionality proved successful.

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SAAB Aerosystems in Linköping, Sweden did. Understand the point. Hectronic developed a safety critical embedded system to monitor and control an unmanned aircraft from the ground in the Neuron project. Reusing functionality was a key to success in the project. System development and integration, production documents and formal documentation required by DO-254 was completed in merely three months. RTCA DO-254 is a standard for hardware in the aviation industry.
 

Saab Aerosystems

Saab is one of the partners in the Neuron project, Europe’s Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) demonstrator. Saab Aerosystems found that Hectronic’s principles to reuse embedded building blocks matched the philosophy in the project.

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The embedded system developed for Saab was a subsystem in a greater context. We have reached the end of the scale, customers relying on Hectronic to develop the complete system. A reason for customers choosing this strategy is that what’s making their product unique is found only in the application software. For this group of customers the outsourcing of the system development and the keeping software development in-house is a matter of efficient use of resources. It was the argument of FARA ASA.
 

Focusing on core competence by outsourcing development

FARA initially had a hardware development department as part of their organization. A survey was conducted among the customers and the result had them start thinking differently. A new strategy was formed in order to more clearly focus the efforts on aspects making the company and the products unique. The customers had expressed a wish for standardized solutions rather than proprietary solutions. The Hectronic development project resulted in a vehicle computer based on standard computing hardware and only open interfaces.
 

Fara ASA

FARA is the Nordic leader within IT-solutions to the public transport sector. The strategy to remain in the forefront was to avoid proprietary solutions, choose standard hardware, existing operating systems and only open interfaces.

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So if you’re a customer of Hectronic’s there is a wide range of products and development services to choose from, and combinations thereof. An alternative is to choose to buy components like modules, boards or systems ready to be used. Other alternatives include our development, production and maintenance of parts of, or the complete embedded system. Or have us support your own efforts through services like reviewing designs, simulating heat dissipation properties or adapting BIOS. 
 
If you trust us with developing the complete embedded system we handle challenges involved in certification, approval, sourcing components, production and plan for the next generation of the processor platform needed in your future generation products.  
 
I hope that you are now more familiar with the options at hand in being one of the many Hectronic customers. For sure it’s up to you to make a choice. You can always rely on our engineers to guide you through your deliberations and we are always there to join in constructive discussions. A combination of your knowledge of the final product, how it’s used and its competitive edge and our experience from more than 20 years of developing embedded computers is what’s makes the difference. 
 

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