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Duct Tape, WD-40, FPGAs

The Universal Survival Kit

The race car flies into the pits just below the maximum speed – its automatic governor making sure that the team isn’t assessed a penalty.  Exhaust gases vent at 1500 degrees fahrenheit as throttle valves close.  Over a million dollars worth of high-performance technology glides down the tarmac to the designated pit.  The crew is already engaged: tires are off and replacement rubber is being mounted, fuel is gushing into the tank through a high-volume filler connection, and the pit chief runs out with the critical component to keep the team in the race – a four inch strip of duct tape. 

It doesn’t really matter what he was using the tape for this time.  He’s used it so many times for so many different purposes that the crew wouldn’t consider starting a race without several rolls of it at the ready.  Duct Tape is truly a universal remedy – and can be pressed into service in such a wide variety of situations it would be absurd to even try to bound it by cataloging them.  As indispensable as it is in racing (where they refer to it as “200 MPH tape”), it is used in an enormous number of applications like gaffing, radome repair on the nose cone of fighter planes, canoe repair, wardrobe enhancement — the list is almost endless.

As impressive as Duct Tape is, its universal applicability is easily rivaled by WD-40, the almost magical combination of dry-cleaning solvent, mineral oil, and some other miscellaneous ingredients that serve as a cleaner, lubricant, rust inhibitor, and a moisture removal agent for things like electrical components.  My Dad regularly attempted to extend the use of WD-40 for even more radical uses (don’t try this at home), such as – insecticide, but I was never quite convinced of its efficacy in such “out of the box” applications.

Together, Duct Tape and WD-40 have ruled the roost of Universal Remedies.  It is often said, “If it moves and it isn’t supposed to – duct tape it.  If it doesn’t move and it is supposed to – WD-40 it.”  If we wanted a single champion, it isn’t clear which product would win in a superhero showdown, although we’ve seen references to the fact that WD-40 can be used to remove residual duct tape adhesive.  Perhaps that’s a clue.

We at FPGA Journal would like to now nominate FPGAs to join the elite ranks of these two revered institutions.  We believe that FPGAs are now proving themselves to be exactly the kind of product that deserves the Universal Remedy title.  As we all know, since their modest beginnings and explosion of applicability as enabling components in telecommunications infrastructure, FPGAs have proven themselves panacean in an enormous range of situations.  Now, within the engineering community, they’re taking on exactly the kind of aura once reserved for miracle products like the aforementioned Duct Tape and WD-40.   People are using FPGAs for just about everything you can imagine – and lots of things you can’t. 

Consider – FPGAs can perform packet switching, they can accelerate digital signal processing, they can bridge incompatible communications protocols, they can play host to entire embedded computing systems, they can drive backplanes, they can act as reconfigurable computing elements.  We see people building devices every day that consist of little more than one or two FPGAs plopped down onto a circuit board with a few generic interfaces.  “Look at our new reconfigurable supercomputer,” they say.  “Observe our amazing automotive telematics integrator,” they boast.  “See our fantastic ASIC emulator,” they cry.  We, however, always just see a board with a few FPGAs.  The situation reminds one of the blind men with the elephant… No, more accurately, it reminds one of Duct Tape.

Of course, there have been other coups-d’etat – pretenders to the throne – poseurs attempting to trick their way to the title.  We’ve all watched the antics of such products as the infamous “Swiss Army Knife”, and we’re not impressed.  The thing about these entrants is that they are severe compromises – the Swiss Army knife, in an attempt to do everything, does nothing particularly well.  Really, are there any sawing tasks where you’re sawing away and suddenly think to yourself, “Hey, if I just had that Swiss Army Knife Saw, this job would be a snap!”  Then there’s the “toothpick”…  ugh.  Contrast that with the pervasive prowess of Duct Tape and WD-40.  In most of their myriad applications – they perform the very best.  Nothing de-squeaks door hinges as well as WD-40.  Try to beat duct tape for attaching an extension cord to the floor – it can’t be done.  Herein lies the difference.

Possibly the best historical challenges have been mounted by the likes of baking soda and aloe vera – both respectable performers within their own domains.  However, while these substances are well regarded in their respective worlds, they have clearly jumped the shark.  Neither has maintained the avid, almost religious following of our top-tier technologies, and neither has achieved the explosive expansion exemplified by duct tape wallets, WD-40 rust removal techniques – the list is almost endless.

One might argue that the likes of Google and Wikipedia stand a serious chance of joining the chosen ranks…  but the people who take that point of view clearly do not publish FPGA Journal.

Duct tape was apparently developed during the 1940s as a waterproof tape to seal ammunition boxes.  Later, it was used to seal heating and air conditioning ducts (where it presumably got its name).  WD-40 was created in 1953 by Norm Larsen of the Rocket Chemical Company to prevent corrosion in electrical circuitry.  The thing that happened to both Duct Tape and WD-40 is that people began to see the flexibility of the products, and it became a challenge to find new and interesting applications.

FPGAs will not automatically join the likes of Duct Tape and WD-40.  They need your help.  Getting FPGAs to this stature will require us, the engineers who love and use FPGAs every day, to do our part and develop new, innovative uses for our favorite technology.  We have to spread the word.  Speaking of words, there is one more important barrier through which FPGAs must pass before they inhabit the hallowed halls of you-know-where.  They have to become a verb. 

I won’t try to sugar-coat this, because it’s just a cold, hard fact.  If you’re gonna play in the big leagues, you have to be a verb.  “George, you got a little close to that semi.  Now I have to duct tape the rear-view mirror back on the car.”  “Marge, I just WD-40d the snow shovel, now you can clear the driveway twice as fast.”  These products roll off the tongue just as nicely in verb form as they do as nouns.  Google definitely has a lead on us here, so we’ve gotta make up some ground.  You can count on FPGA Journal to start the trend with such prose as, “We’ll just FPGA the incoming waveform and pick out the key harmonics.” Or, “I think we should FPGA that idea to see how it works in hardware.”   The leap to verbhood may sound tough at first, but if “leverage” can make the grade, FPGA can’t be too far behind.

So – go out and invent, you inventors.  FPGA your ideas.  FPGA your friends.  You know it’s the right thing to do.  The engineering community carries the seeds of its own revolution.  FPGAs deserve this place in history.

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