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Standard hardware improves the competitive edge

By Magnus Fritzson, Market Communications Manager at Hectronic AB
 
According to a survey made a couple of years ago the customers in the public transportation sector require embedded systems which are easy to install and operate, simple to integrate with third party systems and they want the opportunity to switch supplier in the future. Traditionally the offer has been quite the opposite, consisting of systems without open interfaces, with proprietary hardware and even custom made operating systems.

The survey was performed by FARA ASA, the dominant supplier of IT solutions for public transportation in the Nordic countries. Fara seized the opportunity to adapt the business and product offer accordingly to remain in the forefront. The strategy is to avoid proprietary solutions, choose standard hardware, existing operating systems and only open interfaces.
– Based on the market trends I believe that our decision was the right one, to go for standard solutions and give up internal hardware development, says Teemu Vähäkainu, CTO at FARA in Oulu, Finland.


Fara develops and offers products and solutions within three main areas; Ticketing, Information/Fleet Management and Infotainment. Customers are municipalities, public organisations and private operators.

At the time of the survey FARA had its own hardware development department. In order to meet customer requirements as specified in the result of the survey resources needed to be added to the hardware development department. Development of complete systems, internal procedures to handle production and logistics in large volumes and strategies to manage product life cycle issues was needed. At the end FARA choose another path.
– The customers ask for standard products and it makes no sense for us to be a manufacturer of standard products, says Teemu Vähäkainu.

An alternative strategy seemed wiser. Resources were focused on the core competence. The decision was made to buy, instead of make, the hardware needed.
– FARA is today a dedicated software house and system integrator.
 

Scalable performance

The new hardware platform needed to flexible and scalable in terms of computing performance and the set of interfaces integrated. No existing standard hardware on the market showed enough of that to meet the requirements so a design project was started. Hectronic was picked to be the technical partner to complete FARA’s knowledge in software development and system integration.
– Hectronic gives us the possibility to be on the edge of modern hardware technology also, says Teemu Vähäkainu.
 
 
 
The Fara Vehicle PC, FVPC

Click to enlarge the picture

 

The Fara Vehicle PC, FVPC has a rich set of standard interfaces for flexibility and easy integration with other onboard computers. Two RS232 serial ports and two serial ports for RS232/422/485, software selectable, ensure serial communication capabilities for every scenario. Four USB and one Ethernet port add to the flexibility along with one CAN port for communication inside the vehicle.

Wireless communication interfaces included are quad band GSM/GPRS or GSM/GPRS/EDGE and enhanced data rate Bluetooth for wireless audio headset or wireless connectivity.

A COM module and a custom carrier board enables scalable performance and the possibility for future upgrades since a number of different modules can be used on the same carrier board. To ensure reliable operation and fast time to market Faras strategy is reuse of existing modules and designs. The choice of the ETX form factor makes it possible to integrate existing hardware modules and designs on the ISA bus.

The FVPC is available with the following processor options:
• AMD Geode LX800, 500MHz with 128kb L2 Cache

• Intel Celeron M, 1GHz without L2 Cache

• Intel Pentium M, 1.4GHz with 2Mb L” Cache

 

This system is offered in two versions that are included in Hectronic's standard product portfolio. For the complete technical specification of the systems offered click on the following link:

 

H1122 - Product Page »

 
 
 
 
Costs needed to be kept low. Hectronics development strategy to reuse ready-made embedded building blocks was favourable in this regard, and was one of the reasons behind choosing Hectronic for the project. Reuse of building blocks, for instance COM modules or other components, across separate computer platforms meant larger volumes in production at Hectronic. Thus FARA drew advantages from production volumes larger than their individual need.
– Hectronic has the possibility to choose hardware parts already verified and in operation in existing platforms.
 

Improving the design

The major part of the hardware design was already completed by Faras engineers when Hectronic entered the stage. The contribution was in this case to verify the design according to the procedures of the quality assurance methodology used at Hectronic, development of mechanics and a cooling device for the system.
– I didn’t expect Hectronic to come up with suggestions for improvements to the design prior to production since it was almost completed, but yet they did. And we did some changes in cooperation with them as well, before entering production.

The strategy to use standard hardware products, emphasize flexibility and openness is a main theme in development work at FARA. Qt, a cross-platform user interface and application framework, is used in  software development.
– Qt gives us the possibility to make single applications that work on multiple operating systems such as Windows XP, CE, Linux and even on Symbian.

One software application can be copied from one platform to another. It’s an ideal solution when a customer has requirements for a particular operating system to be used.

FARA’s growth markets exist in the European countries, except the Nordic region. In the Nordic countries the position as major supplier is already achieved. When it comes to technology the answer to the question for future trends comes without hesitation.
– Open systems and integration, says Teemu Vähäkainu.
 

Simplifying integration

The use of standard computer products, both in hardware and software, open interfaces and flexible systems are, among other things, the means to simplify integration. Integration in this case is for instance a customer using a Ticketing solution from FARA together with a Fleet Management system from a third party supplier.

The need for simple integration was also one of the desires expressed in the survey, and a guide leading all the way to the development, production and now employment of the FARA Vehicle PC, FVPC, FARA’s new computer platform for public transportation.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Driving forces in technology development

The development of embedded computer solutions for public transportation has the following driving forces from society and from customers.

Customer satisfaction
Important factors for customer satisfaction are accurate, reliable and updated information on time tables, arrivals and departures, preferably in real-time. Another way to increase customer satisfaction is for instance onboard Internet connections, news broadcasts and movies.

Input to improving business
Statistics are needed to evaluate efficiency and profitability in public transportations in order to increase competitiveness and maximize return on investments.  

Rules and regulations
Automotive applications require certification. Common types of certification are E-type approval and CE certification. Critical communication, for example economical transactions needs to comply to security standards and guidelines.

Driver safety
Public transportation with drivers handling cash runs the risk of being robbed. Demands for increased driver safety are leading to development of solutions to avoid cash handling, such as various chip-based purse systems based on smart card technology. In near future cash handling in buses will be banned permanently.

Technology standards
Operators of public transportation are increasingly asking for systems based on hardware components, operating systems, interfaces and methods of communication that are widely spread and used. In this way this sector will benefit from the general evolution of technology instead of being locked in by proprietary solutions.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Fara ASA