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System-Design Challenges Abound but So Do Solutions: Panel

Comments(0)Filed under: EDA software, system-level design, system design, EELive, Open Innovation Summit

SAN JOSE, Calif.—A rising storm of complexity—involving software, electronics, and mechanical components of system design—has not stopped engineers from tackling challenges and increasing design productivity.

That was the message from an April 2 panel here in the daylong Silicon Valley Open Innovation Forum. The forum, sponsored by Flextronics, was held in conjunction with the annual EELive engineering conference here.

Charles Krueger, CEO of BigLever Software, which provides systems and software product line engineering (PLE) framework, tools, and services, set up the challenge right off the bat.

"There's a perfect storm emerging in technology," Krueger told the audience.

Complexity Storm

He compared the complexity that the confluence of mechanical electrical and software technology components brings to system design to autonomous vehicles.

Open Innovation Panel (L-R): Wilbur Catabay, TSI Semiconductor; Alfred Crouch, Asset Intertech; Charles Krueger, BigLever Software; Qi Wang, Cadence; Joseph Virginia, Senkatel USA;Richard McDonell, National Instruments; Tom Linton, Flextronics.

"The interaction of electronics and software and mechanical pieces in the system is so tightly coupled and very, very complex. We don't do business as usual," Krueger said.

To its credit, the panel spent far less time on potential peril and much more time on how the industry has confronted this rise in system design complexity.

For example, Qi Wang, Cadence's Technical Assistant to the CEO, said that the design challenges are forcing traditional EDA companies to think differently.

"As a tool vendor, we realize we have to move up the value chain to capture more value," he said. Wang added:

"Traditional IC EDA companies have to think more about the system because hardware and software are tied together more closely than before. Customers are moving in that direction. We have to adapt ourselves in this very competitive market."

Two other major steps in recent years that have benefited electronics systems design have been platform design approaches and widespread adoption of standards.

Tom Linton, Chief Procurement Officer with Flextronics, said the keys are many standard, commoditized building blocks as possible and reference designs "as close to vanilla" as possible. "That increases supply-chain speed and reduces cost," Linton said.

Standards Leverage

Joseph Virginia, President of Senkatel USA, a company that specializes in "purpose-built" tablets for the education market, seconded some of the panel's points. While he described his company as a Tier 2 tablet vendor, he said that's the very sector that's driving overall tablet growth, with unit shipments expected to soar from 250 million units now to 534 million in 2017. That wouldn't happen without standards and common reference designs.

"For us, it's standards, reference designs and platforms," Virginia said, calling out industry cooperative work on screen aspect ratios, MEMS sensors, and wireless communications protocols.

He also saluted EMS and ODM solutions providers, without whom he said the tablet market might not exist today.

"Quality is expected regardless of the price," Virginia said. "We haven't seen someone say 'I'll spend $100 on this tablet and it's OK if it's not very good.'"

Richard McDonell, director of Americas marketing at National Instruments, said one way to drive innovation is to adopt platform strategies. He said:

"The number one thing we hear is ‘provide us with the platform or tools to focus on the key problem we're trying to solve and takes care of all the rest.' We strive ... to allow engineers to have a platform that gets them 70 or 80% of the way there that allows them to then have their own differentiation or unique application-specific abilities."

That approach helps National Instruments serve 35,000 customers a year. But McDonell also acknowledged that while 80 percent of design is reused today, custom design is far from dead.

Still, "If you're not leveraging some type of platform, you're at a disadvantage," McDonell said.

And while we reap the benefit of platforms, it has been a long time in coming, according to Wang, who noted that U.C. Berkeley engineering professor Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli first described the approach 30 years ago. So why the delay?

Wang (pictured, right) said:

"30 years ago it was only people with PhDs could work with computers. Now we have two-year-old kids playing with iPads and using wearable electronics."

This technological evolution completely changes how we use technology to invent the future, cut time to market, cost, and increase functionality, Wang said. "All those changes changed the (design) requirements," he added.

This has led to the rise of application-driven design methodologies. EDA companies are working to enable this kind of design with new methodologies and technologies from IP and verification IP all the way through to verification.

Outliving the Platform?

The panelists fielded a number of challenging questions from the audience. One audience member pointed out that today the lifetime of the cell phone is 18 months which is effectively much shorter than the lifetime of a platform on which the cell phone is based.

Panelists in general said whether that dynamic is true depends on the application and the market segment.

Alfred Crouch, chief strategist with embedded instrumentation vendor Asset Intertech, said that in some consumer cases, if you can't get a chip out in three or four months, you're going to miss a major market opportunity.

NI's McDonell paraphrased the famous line from hockey star Wayne Gretzky: don't skate to where the puck is but to where the puck is going to be. And he noted that some software platforms can last for 50 years while some hardware platforms can last for 10-15 years.

Brian Fuller

Related stories:

EDA Verification, IP Innovation Drive System Design: Taneja

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