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Get Smart with Embedded Software

By Mike Evans

Mike EvansUnlike a lot of media campaigns, IBM’s “Smarter Planet” ads feature a basic truth behind them: A high proportion of the products and devices we interact with are getting smarter. The proposition is that these will enable a decent standard of living for the soon-to-be 7 billion people on Earth to live sustainably within the resources of the planet.

Of course, technology only enables. The real drivers are people’s needs, cultures and organizational capabilities. The Internet hosts new types of organizations, accelerating the trend to inter-connect us. So far, it links people to content and other people. In the future, though, it will link people to things–and even link things to things.

Smart devices are products and equipment that are a combination of mechanical, electrical, semiconductor and software elements. It is the embedded software that controls these devices and enables the increasingly complex interactions between people and devices. But a consequence of this is that the design process to develop smart devices cannot simply break the smart product into independent parallel designs by engineers in each discipline for each element. The elements interact.

A function to meet a customer requirement, such as triggering an actuator, might be realized in mechanical, electrical or software controls. The design trade-offs are complex, and extend beyond the traditional engineering function. The unit volume, the unit price, the power consumption, the time to market and the flexibility to change the product capability all interact.

There is also a time dimension to the design trade-offs. As volume increases, implementing a function in a different discipline might reduce cost. Downloading new software to an existing product in the field, creating new functionality, might generate post-sales revenue and maintain customer loyalty.

One group that will be affected first by these changes are design engineers. Smart products change the design process and the role of the engineers. Fortunately, engineers are highly skilled and adaptable people! But they will need smarter tools.

Looking Back to Look Ahead
When I was an engineering student, more than 40 years ago, undergraduate courses were for specific disciplines: electrical, mechanical, electronics. We did not expect to need sales or commercial skills. Our success would be measured in terms of product innovation–introducing new products to the market. Selling them profitably would be somebody else’s problem.

But when we were unleashed onto the industry, we quickly found out that making sure our innovative product met a market demand turned out to be our problem, too. Many of us acquired commercial skills on the job.

Since I studied, the narrow course I took has transformed to a comprehensive grounding in engineering, management and economic principles. Company-based projects are a significant feature of the course, enabling students to apply what they have learned to real industrial problems. The head of the Institute of Manufacturing at Cambridge University, Dr. Mike Gregory, sets out the objective as “combining intellectual rigour with real-world relevance with an integrated community of academics, students and industrialists with a shared passion for modern manufacturing.”

Real-world problems turn out to be much more complex than excellence in design in one’s own discipline. Engineers have developed techniques to handle complexity and interactions, such as multi-disciplinary design teams. A systems engineering approach has become common. The International Council for Systems Engineering (INCOSE) defines systems engineering as “an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem.”

Software Development Becomes Key
Smart products mean that all product development engineers will have to engage more effectively with one particular discipline: software development. Traditionally, engineers have always been able to program computers a bit. But they considered this as supporting their discipline, not an integral part of the product they are designing. Embedded software as an element of a product must be developed with the same professional engineering techniques. Engineers from all disciplines will have to understand these constraints, and how product functionality realized in software interplays with their own discipline.

Smart products add flexibility to products, but complexity to the design process. It can be very difficult to track which requirements are satisfied where. For smart products, a successful design process will need further emphasis on requirements definition; modeling the design at successive stages of refinement; simulation and analysis of a virtual product; and test and verification that the design requirements are met as we replace the virtual product design with physical realization.

Many engineering software tools still only work within a single discipline. What is needed are tools that comprehensively support all the different disciplines, and allow designs to be verified both at the detail of the problem and as a complete solution to the requirements.  

Cases in Point
Better visualization of virtual products means that future potential users can understand the look and feel of the physical product from a realistic simulation. For example, BMW Research has already shown how this technique would assist a technician to dismantle an engine. Images of the parts to remove are registered over the user’s view of the physical world. These “augmented reality” techniques could validate requirements specifications and assist making better estimates of the demand for the product. Better customer feedback is likely to improve products, but encourage late requirements changes. To cope with this, we will need a better design process.

Dassault Systemes demonstrated technologies for augmented reality at the recent Application Innovation Summit in Paris. Its vision is that product design and the software tools it supplies to assist engineers will change fundamentally. The company expects use of these tools to extend to most skilled workers in a manufacturing enterprise.

At present, support for embedded software development is poorly integrated with mechanical and electrical engineering design and data management tools. However, we are beginning to see a more integrated approach from the bottom up.

For example, Microvisk Technologies’ handheld medical device provides home tests for patients using anti-coagulant treatments. It demonstrates the kind of problem engineers will face. This device measures viscosity using microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS) on disposable strips incorporating a small cantilever. A finger prick of blood is fed to the microchip by a micro capillary channel. Tissue factor is introduced to begin a reaction known as the Clotting Cascade. The change from a free-flowing to a gel-like substance is detected; the cantilever deforms and the result of the test displayed.

This is an extremely challenging and complex device to design. The industry is tightly regulated. Material science, mechanical, microelectronics and software elements all interact. A simulation-led design process has allowed Microvisk’s design team to reduce physical prototyping and development time by integrating several disciplines’ analysis and simulation. Microvisk used COMSOL Multiphysics to simulate the MEMS’ performance mechanically, thermally and electrostatically.

This example is just one step in what we expect to be a gradual change to smarter software tools that support a changing design process.

Mike Evans is research director of Cambashi Ltd, based in Cambridge, UK. Contact him via de-editors@deskeng.com.

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DE's editors contribute news and new product announcements to Digital Engineering. Press releases can be sent to them via DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.