Flexible Silicon and Plastic Circuits
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.
Technology and Art Attempt to Walk Hand-in-Hand Toward the Future
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 The shelves of tchotchkes have been replaced by more inspired art pieces -- no one is displaying a Yoda head, even for kitsch or nostalgia purposes, and I managed to find only one example of the usually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.
Mentor PADS Redefines the Board Genre
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.
Unexpected Technology on the Farm
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.
Moore’s Law Turns Fifty
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.
Molex and the Connectors of Tomorrow
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?
Altium Brings the Goods to Makers, Startups, and Engineers Alike
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!
Giving a Voice to Your Abode with Conexant’s Smart Home Technology
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.
The Next Big Thing?
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.
New Boards, Power Electronics, and Software Tinkerers
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.
Debuggers and Boards and IDEs! Oh, My!
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.
Whoa, That's a Big Piece of Equipment You've Got There
Fresh from the land of eye diagrams, super-fast SerDes, and more board design software than you'll ever need, it's Fish Fry! This week we investigate some of the biggest themes presented at this year's DesignCon in Santa Clara, CA. Our first guest is Rohde & Schwarz CEO Scott Bausback who joins Fish Fry to help us understand the ever-evolving world of test and measurement, explain how IOT will affect the evolution of T&M, and what it's like to build a recording studio in your house. Also this week, we chat with Stephanie Jarno from HUBER+SUHNER about how today's wicked-fast SerDes speeds are changing the demands on our cables and connectors.
The concept of designing, validating and then reusing functional blocks in integrated circuits (ICs) has been entrenched in the electronics industry for decades. Software development has a similar model utilizing libraries of common function calls or objects. However, the concept of reusing printed circuit board (PCB) modules is much less common. Reusing PCB modules for common or commodity functions offers considerable advantages, for example avoiding potential signal integrity or thermal problems, by utilizing circuit data whose performance has been proven in previous generations of products. The key to successful modular circuit design is a data management system that can store and control access to modular reusable blocks, manage information that is critical to design reuse, such as the layer structure of a routed block, and interface easily with the circuit design software. The end result is a reduction in time during schematic capture and PCB design, along with fewer design errors, making it possible to bring quality products to market faster.
Saleae Logic Analyzer is a New Take on Lab Equipment
“Oh, and one more thing…”
You can almost hear the ghost of Steve Jobs introducing the Saleae Logic Pro 16, gesturing to a rear-projection screen as he slips the device out of his pocket. It’s that kind of logic analyzer.
Huh, what? Trendy, stylish, desirable test instruments?
Believe it. The Logic Pro 16 is a hardware logic analyzer that even a design aesthete would love. It’s the lab instrument for the SoHo/Noe Valley/Pearl district crowd. And I have one. And no, you can’t borrow it.
Fifty Years of Electronics in Munich
Electronica, the enormous "trade fair for electronic components, systems, applications and services", to quote the organisers, was nearly a month ago. So why have I waited this long to report on it? Mainly because I needed the time to recover and to try to get a perspective on what I saw and heard during three days packed with meetings interspersed with long walks.
Looking back to the year electronica first took place, 1964 was the year that I Want to Hold Your Hand triggered Beatle-mania (and the Rolling Stones released their first album), US President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and the US began ramping up the forces in Viet-Nam. In Russia, Khrushchev was deposed as Soviet leader, and, in Britain, Harold Wilson became Prime Minister. China, France and America conducted atom bomb tests, and the second Vatican Council replaced Latin with local languages for Roman Catholic church services. Moog launched his music synthesiser. General Douglas McArthur and Cole Porter both died and Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin were both born. If most of this (except the births) means nothing or little to you, you are probably too young to understand.