My Ruler Must Be Broken

Measuring Power Consumption Can Drive You Crazy

by Jim Turley

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'” – Isaac Asimov

According to Adam Savage, the difference between science and just screwing around is writing it down. It’s the measurement – the annotation, the calibration, the methodical note-taking – that separates good science (and engineering) from mere hacking and tinkering. Without good measurements there can be no good science.

So raise a caliper and spare a thought for the measurers in our industry - the ones wielding the oscilloscope probes, the voltmeters, the electron microscopes. For they are the ones who enable us to produce better, faster, and more reliable electronics.

 

Heterogeneous Processing, SoCs and FPGAs

A Path to Flexible System Implementation

by Dick Selwood

Firstly – if you are an existing FPGA user, you may not find much that is new in this piece, but really, it is not aimed at you. What would be useful is if you share it with your system architect colleagues and your software colleagues, for whom much of this may well be new and useful.

You are beginning a new project - let's say a motor control system. You can assemble components on a board – possibly a processor, a DSP, an FPGA for peripherals, and a networking ASIC. The result is a relatively large board, with the inherent reliability issues and a high BoM cost

 

The 5 Best Things from World Maker Faire 2015

From “Hello World” to Saving the World

by Larra Morris

After the EE Journal team’s inspiring and fascinating trip to last year’s World Maker Faire in New York, we were pumped this year to head out again to the New York Hall of Science in Queens for the 2015 World Maker Faire. Once again, the “Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth” did not disappoint. We came away excited and energized and ready to tinker around with our own Arduino boards, 3D printers, robots, and quadcopters at home.

Without further ado, here are EE Journal’s Top 5 Favorite Things from World Maker Faire 2015:

 

Embedded Journalists in a War Zone

We Attend ESC So You Don’t Have To

by Jim Turley

At last, I’ve been vindicated. A semi-official study has shown that car alarms are wholly worthless, and that they actually may be a social and economic drain on the community at large. Not surprisingly, 99% of people who hear a blaring car alarm completely ignore it (which obviously defeats the purpose of the alarm), while the few souls who actually do report an alarm to the police don’t do it because they think the car is being stolen. No, they report it as a noise complaint. Even insurance companies, a group famously guided by hard-nosed statistics over mere anecdotal evidence, and with tens of millions of data points to rely upon, treat car alarms as worthless in preventing theft or damage. Worse than useless, in fact. The earsplitting noise just covers the sound of breaking glass, making it actually easier for bad guys to steal the car or its contents. Go figure.

 

Bend it like Silicon

Flexible Silicon and Plastic Circuits

by Dick Selwood

For some years, when I have travelled, my passport has been stowed in my hip pocket. This has worked well (apart from the incident with the cool wash cycle) but did mean that my passport developed a firm curve. Earlier this year I needed a new passport, and when it arrived, there was a firm instruction: "Do not Bend". This is, presumably, because it has a chip inside, and, as we all know, silicon does not bend. But when you talk to, among others, Gerhard Klink of the Fraunhofer Institute's "Group Polytronic Technologies" in Munich, he can show silicon bending. It is easy, really. You start with a standard wafer, build up your circuit on one side, and then remove the back side of the wafer mechanically until you achieve a thickness of less than 25 microns. (The technology for making wafers thinner has been well developed for MEMS sensors and related products.) At this thickness, it is possible to bend silicon easily.

 

Insights from the 3D Printing Conference and Expo

Technology and Art Attempt to Walk Hand-in-Hand Toward the Future

by Larra Morris

The exhibit floor at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in New York City is packed. While other tech conferences (like DAC and whatever they’re calling the Embedded Systems Conference this year) have faced dwindling attendance each year, this one is so well attended that it can be difficult to make your way from booth to booth. The panelists and attendees are excited and enthusiastic. And they have every reason to be -- this is a technology that is exploding. Even since World Maker Faire in New York less than a year ago, the 3D printing capabilities on display appear to have improved by leaps and bounds: textures are less rough, sculptures are more intricate and detailed, colors are more varied and vivid, and projects are more interesting and ambitious.

At World Maker Faire, you could step into a scanning booth and get a 3D-printed action figure/figurine of yourself. Now, you can get that action figure in color (not just A color, but IN COLOR), and, at another booth, you can play around with a face-scanning tool that will put your action figure in a Star Trek uniform holding a tricorder - or make it a ghostbuster. The shelves of tchotchkes have been replaced by more inspired art pieces -- no one is displaying a Yoda head, even for kitsch or nostalgia purposes, and I managed to find only one example of the usually ubiquitous twisty vase design.

 

Changing the PCB Axis

Mentor PADS Redefines the Board Genre

by Kevin Morris

Anybody who has ever bought professional PCB software has probably noticed a problem with the way PCB tools have always been packaged, priced, and marketed. Well, anybody except for the folks who actually sell PCB tools, that is. For some reason, PCB tools have always been sold with a built-in wrong assumption - that only big companies with large design teams are doing sophisticated designs. If you were a huge company with giant design teams that required all the “enterprise” features related to team design, collaboration, IP sharing, and library management, the PCB tool vendors gave you all the features needed for leading-edge, high-performance board design.

But, if you were a smaller company or team who didn’t require all the big collaboration features, you got the toy-like “desktop” PCB tools which didn’t include the stuff you needed for high-performance, high-density board design.

 

A Circuit Board for the Bees

Unexpected Technology on the Farm

by Bryon Moyer

This is a story about some of the finickiest customers you can imagine. It’s also a story of great patience.

Let’s start with bees. Bees make three things: wax, honey, and eggs. OK, only the queen makes the eggs, but she still qualifies as a bee. In modern commercial beekeeping, a hive consists of a stack of boxes. Each box has several “frames” inside. Each frame holds the familiar wax honeycombs built by the bees. Each new frame has a starting pattern that guides the bees as they create the honeycomb.

By hive design, the bottom box houses the queen and all of the brood (eggs and developing young). A barrier prevents the queen from moving to upper boxes and laying eggs throughout the hive (although workers can get through). So the upper boxes are only for honey. Within the brood box, the size of the starting frame pattern determines the size of the comb build-out. Larger cells house drone eggs; smaller cells house worker eggs.

 

Cramming Moore Components

Moore’s Law Turns Fifty

by Kevin Morris

It’s been a half-century since Gordon Moore published “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits” in the April 19, 1965 edition of Electronics Magazine. It was another five years before Carver Mead dubbed Moore’s prediction in that article - about progress in integrated circuit density - “Moore’s Law,” and another five years after that before Moore revised his original “doubling every year” prediction to “doubling every two years.” At its simplest level, then, Moore’s Law predicts that the number of transistors that can be fabricated on a single chip will double every two years.

The fifty years that have followed that prophetic piece have seen nothing short of the most amazing advances in human history. Moore originally predicted that the trend would continue for “at least ten years,” but the exponential he foresaw has held almost miraculously steady for five times that long. Some would say that Moore brought incredible insight with his prediction. Others would say he was lucky. Still others would claim that this is an example of self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever the case, the profound impact of that one metric - “number of transistors on a single chip” - on just about every aspect of our global society is almost unfathomable.

 

Bringing Flexy Back

Molex and the Connectors of Tomorrow

by Amelia Dalton

They’re super important, and every design needs them, but let’s face it - connectors have gotten a bad rap for being a bit boring. In this week’s Fish Fry, we explore into the multi-faceted world of today’s connectors and cables where signal integrity rules the roost and multi-gigbit SerDes is king. My guest is Joe Dambach (Molex) and we discuss how Molex is using correlated models to solve today’s signal integrity and high-speed serial design challenges, how datacenters are changing the face of connector and cable technology, and why connectors and cables aren’t as boring as we once thought they were. Also this week, we look into this week’s hottest rumor swirling around the EE halls: Will Intel buy Altera?

 

32 Flavors of PCB Software

Altium Brings the Goods to Makers, Startups, and Engineers Alike

by Amelia Dalton

Buying PCB software can be a lot like purchasing a new car. Once you've got the full set of amenities that you've always wanted (don't forget the TruCoat!), you're about ready to take out a second mortgage on your house. PCB design software does not have to break the bank or cause ruffled feathers during your next budget review. In this week's Fish Fry, we examine the multiple flavors of Altium's PCB tool suites packages -- all the bells and whistles, price points, and more with Sam Sattel, PCB rockstar from Altium. Also this week, we check out iSkin - the newest research in wearable technology coming out of the Embodied Interaction Group in Germany. You won't want to miss it!

 

If You Build It

Giving a Voice to Your Abode with Conexant’s Smart Home Technology

by Amelia Dalton

When you think of a smart home, what comes to mind? The Jetsons? A Ray Bradbury novel? The "Clapper" perhaps? In this week's Fish Fry, we investigate one of the biggest technological trends in IoT: Smart Home Automation. My guest is Saleel Awsare from Conexant. Saleel and I explore how voice control technology will shape the smart home revolution, and we look into the challenges of creating a voice-controlled Smart Home. We also speculate a bit about the direction voice control software is headed. Also this week, we check out how FPGA technology can lend a very valuable hand in your next USB Type-C design.

 

Safety 'n' Security

The Next Big Thing?

by Dick Selwood

The scene: A hotel breakfast room. There are several groups, mostly of men wearing the same logo-marked polo shirt, or matching ties, speaking English and having breakfast. Out of one group comes, "Their BIOS was rubbish, so we had to write a completely new one." Welcome to Nuremberg during embedded world.

For three days all the hotels are packed, despite having doubled their room rates. The U-Bahn (Metro) adds extra services from the city centre to the Exhibition site, and over 900 exhibitors are visited by more than 20,000 people. Amongst them are the editors, rushing around to their long list of press conferences and press briefings. During three days I spoke to around 4% of the exhibitors in formal meetings and a few more in informal sessions. I also received many, many press releases associated with products being launched at the show. (As I write, my inbox is being flooded with Mobile World Congress releases - in fact, so many, they are even overtaking the spam.) What follows is my attempt to capture the main trends in embedded systems based on those meetings and on the way in which companies were branding their booths.

 

Return of the Hobbyist

New Boards, Power Electronics, and Software Tinkerers

by Dick Selwood

Now bear in mind that I am a mature Englishman, so when I talk boards I am not looking at the sort of thing that you see on the US Pacific coast and that the Beach Boys sang about. (There, that rather demonstrated "maturity". For those of you wondering what I am on about, the Beach Boys were a Californian 1960s band who sang about surfing, cars and girls – very exotic in early 1960's, pre-swinging London.)

Instead we are looking at Raspberry Pi and its rivals, which have sparked off a whole new wave of tinkerers - a new type of tinkerer, who plays with hardware at a module level and with software. A distinctive feature of these board families is that they all have developed a strong, web-based community, where community members share projects, problems and successes.

 

Tools! Tools! Tools!

Debuggers and Boards and IDEs! Oh, My!

by Jim Turley

If this is February it must be Nürnberg. Or Barcelona. Either way, it’s the month when embedded developers head to Central Europe. (The ones with travel budgets, anyway.) And it’s the month when embedded vendors roll out their latest toys. It’s like attending Milan Fashion Week or the Paris Auto Show except… you know… less glamorous.

Two of my favorite announcements this week came from smallish companies, and both have been in the business for a while. And both have to do with tools. Software-development tools. The things that make the embedded world go ’round.

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