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Dreaming of EDA
by John J. Smith on Wednesday August 05th, 2015 08:40 PM

I've been thinking about what makes the hardware design process so difficult. It's no secret that getting a PCB designed and out the door takes far longer than a software design of comparable complexity. I've come to a conclusion about this... Hardware design tools are still in the stone age.

A bold statement, of course, but I can back it up. I can sum it up with a few bullet points:
EDA tools are too expensive
10K for the first year is waaaaay too expensive. There are some at a more reasonable price, but they tend to fall short. Abandon the ancient pay to play business model and find something more modern. (as an aside, FOSS EDA tools are a nice try, but they just aren't seamless enough)

EDA tools take little advantage of distributed computing systems
Big downloads, frequent bug fixes (not to mention frequent bugs), no collaboration facilities, etc. In short, get with the program and bring your code into this century.

E... (read article)

What's So Hard About Agile Hardware Development?
by John J. Smith on Saturday January 10th, 2015 07:34 PM

Agile hardware development is a tough nut to crack. Oh sure... lots of companies claim to do agile hardware development, but if you look closely, the claims tend to be suspect. The tools necessary for Agile development are available to the software industry, but just don't exist in the land of hardware. Not yet.

As I've said before, there are some hardware related projects that can legitimately claim agile processes. The first is plug n' chug board integration. This is called integration for a reason... it doesn't require the long delays associated with board manufacture. The second is FPGA/ASIC development, which is more accurately referred to as firmware. While ASIC design has it's own manufacturing delays, these are usually discounted from the process. The real problem is custom electronic device development, which can get very bogged down in manufacturing delays associated with each iteration.

So what is the problem? Why don't software methods transla... (read article)

IoT: The Internet of Things
by John J. Smith on Thursday December 11th, 2014 12:05 PM

There is a new buzzword in town, and it's name is IoT (Internet of Things, a.k.a Cloud of Things, a.k.a Internet of Everything). Ok... so the term has actually been around for a few years, but it has only been a household word for a few months now. It claims to be a revolution that will have a significant impact on the way we live. It has already begun to affect industries such as health services and automotive. But what does it mean to the average tech person? It looks like the answer to that is Plenty, but what it means depends on what you do.

The essence of IoT is simple. Lots and lots of little remote sensors that are cloud-enabled. Things like GPS tracking devices, health monitors, and even controls for autonomous vehicles. All of these devices send their data to the cloud, where it can be processed and made available to end users. Of course the concept is simple. It's the infrastructure and implementation details that are tough. More on that later.

O... (read article)

Some Solutions to the Agile Hardware Quandary
by John J. Smith on Saturday November 08th, 2014 08:41 AM

Introducing Agile into a hardware development process presents quite a few problems that just aren't found in a software-only scenario. Some of these are the nature of the beast, others are remnants of days gone by. Some require the retraining of team members. Others require a small change in definition. In all cases, there are ways around the problem.

To be clear, there are scenarios where hardware development can fit into Scrum sprints. Designing FPGA firmware is one scenario, but the development process for it is so close to software that it is an easy fit. Another scenario is combining Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) cards into a working device. Though some software groups consider this a form of hardware design, it is really just integration. The hardware development scenario I am talking about is anything that requires a custom PCB.

Redefine Working Hardware
On of the tried-and-true precepts of Agile development is that each "sprint", or "cycl... (read article)

LED Circuits for Dummies
by John J. Smith on Saturday September 27th, 2014 02:21 AM

OK... so the "dummies" part of the title is a little extreme. You really don't need to be a dummy to forget about the basics of one of the simplest of all circuits. The problem is that the concept is too simple. Often enough, an LED circuit is done badly, even though the very same engineer has done a bang-up job on an extremely complicated circuit on the very same board.

I've seen so many goofy LED circuits that have come from so many competent, experienced engineers that I thought it worthy of a little online advice. On this page, you will find some extremely simple designs, with a few caution flags thrown up around some of the more common mistakes.

Your First LED Circuit

Figure 1: A basic LED power indicator

Simple isn't it? It's just voltage applied to the LED, with a resistor to limit the current. No rocket science here. All of the calculations can be done using Ohm's law and a 4-function calculator. If you're go... (read article)

Basic Image Resampling Techniques
by John J. Smith on Saturday September 06th, 2014 01:15 PM

Did you ever run a resize algorithm against an image and wonder "how is that done"?. Do you have a piece of hardware or code that could benefit from a basic resizer? Do you lack the basic knowledge of resizing algorithms that is assumed by most of the "scholarly" papers about resizing? Does matrix math give you a headache? If you answered 'yes' to any of those questions, you are in the right place.

First of all, lets get a few things out of the way:

I tend to use the terms 'resize','rescale' and 'resample' interchangeably. Only one of these is truly correct. Which one is correct depends on who you are talking to at the time. IMHO, resampling is probably most correct because it is more descriptive of what is happening. However, I tend to switch around based on mood.
I'm not going to go into too much detail about the formulas except where necessary. I'll also stick with the extremely simple stuff (like how to calculate a scaled distance) and skip diff... (read article)

Agile Hardware Development in a Startup Environment
by John J. Smith on Sunday August 31st, 2014 12:50 PM

Is Agile hardware development a pipe dream or a reality? Well... that really depends on how you view Agile, and how closely you adhere to your chosen methodology. The key to the entire matter is how you interpret the Agile Manifesto. It's a short, masterfully written document that can apply to hardware development with the correct interpretation. It's an unusually short read, so lets take a quick look at it to determine what can translate to hardware development. Because hardware projects can vary dramatically based on application, we'll use a small video player as an example. We'll also use the most popular Agile methodology, SCRUM, to discuss Pros and Cons.

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contr... (read article)

Six Steps to Hardware (Executive Edition)
by John J. Smith on Sunday August 17th, 2014 03:37 PM

A short while ago, I published a post called Six Steps to a Successful Hardware Product. It was intended as a guide to rapid hardware development in a startup environment. However, I couldn't explain the steps without getting long-winded. If you are serious about hardware development, I suggest that you check it out when you have the time. For this post, I'll just hit some of the highlights.

The main thrust of the article is that hardware development need not take longer or cost significantly more than a comparable software product. With new development tools, creative supply chain management, and a little ingenuity, developing a hardware product can be as easy as developing a software product.

The basic steps are: Develop a Concept and Business Case Assemble a Core Team Evaluate Available Technologies Develop an "Alpha" Product Manufacture a "Beta" Product Release to Manufacturing
These steps should be completed in order, but should not follow a ... (read article)

Six Steps to a Successful Hardware Product
by John J. Smith on Sunday August 03rd, 2014 01:21 PM

I've often heard it said that successful hardware development is impossible in a startup environment. The usual complaints are "It's too expensive", "It takes too long", and "It's too difficult to manage". I can tell you from experience that none of this is true anymore. With the right team in place, there is no reason why hardware development should take any longer or cost any more than a comparable software project.

There was a time not long ago when hardware did suffer from all of these problems. However, recent advances in technology have helped to lessen, and often eliminate, many of these concerns. ECAD tools have added significant time-saving features like one-click generation of 3D board models, easy incorporation of FPGA code, and comprehensive device simulation. Advances in technology have also dramatically reduced the cost and delays of developing PCBs. Even chip manufacturers have contributed by lowering the power consumption and component count of designs. (read article)

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