Development kits: identifying and supporting market needs

30th July 2014
Nat Bowers

The age of the development kit is very much upon us. According to Farnell element14 research conducted with more than 1,500 designers of electronic prototypes, on average development kits were used in 45% of all designs in the 12 months up to March 2014. By utilising readymade, low cost boards engineers can test their design ideas with a variety of components. By Richard Curtin, Global Director of Strategic Alliance, element14.

Development tools and single board computers are also putting powerful design tools in the hands of private innovators. Consequently, the democratisation of the manufacturing industry is quickly becoming a reality. Finished products are getting to market quicker than we have ever seen before. This is a seriously disruptive change impacting our industry.

Driving industry evolution

The development kit has an extremely important role to play therefore in the changing dynamics of the electronic industry in terms of design, distribution and supply. It is one of the fundamental evolutions that is driving change in the way customers interact with traditional component distributors and suppliers – expecting solutions that support them right the way through the design cycle as opposed to just a variety of components.

Sophisticated development tools are a key part of this as the remit of innovation has been opened up to independent development communities who are creating unique solutions to meet real market needs currently not serviced by suppliers. The most important evolution in the development kit to date has been the Single Board Computer (SBC). The success of two SBCs in particular, the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone, has sparked a particular interest in this type of development kit, which in turn has encouraged more manufacturers to develop them and more distributors to supply them. These kits have the ability to work as a true stand-alone computer and, whilst they may not be comparable to the performance and power of most PCs, their low price point, widespread support from manufacturers and educational value has led to their success.

The great leveller

One of the most heavily discussed uses of these boards is their value as an education tool – allowing professional engineers, developers and hobbyists alike to experiment with computer programming at low financial cost and risk. However as they arrive as fully tested, complete devices, entrepreneurs and businesses have begun integrating them in to their product designs directly, reducing development time and costs. They also give designers even more room for experimentation, meaning the level of support required has increased exponentially. Whereas previously a datasheet may have had all the required information, now engineers are finding themselves trying new approaches and looking to their peers for advice and tips. As a result engineers both young and old are turning to online communities for the extra information they need.

Developing the future

The current uses of development kits are well documented – with embedded kits mostly used to test programmable components, usually microprocessors or microcontrollers and analog kits servicing a wider array of functions such as sensing, power management and amplification. Through the element14 Community, we see engineers and hobbyists using development kits for all kinds of applications – everything from computer games to wirelessly charged skin cancer screening devices. However, when we think about the future of the development kit, one has to consider that its future is inextricably linked with that of the electronics industry itself. After all, development kits are helping improve the design of new products and bring prototypes to life, increasingly in line with industry demand.

For the electronics industry the Internet of Things (IoT) is the single most important trend that will globally boost the market and lead a new stage in its history. In terms of where the development kit sits within that space, we can focus on three specific areas within the umbrella term of the IoT: power consumption, connectivity and touch.

At the same time as the proliferation to battery powered hand held devices we have seen HD display quality become the industry standard. This in turn has driven a never ending quest for lower power consumption in the rest of the device and further ability to charge devices wirelessly. Furthermore, as the IoT ultimately aims to connect devices in such a way that they are constantly gathering and interpreting signals and data, reducing the power consumption involved in simply making connections will become a huge priority for manufacturers. Energy harvesting is one of the ways designers can reduce power consumption and an area that will be key to the future of the development kit as engineers look to create new ways of using energy more efficiently from the outset of the design process.

In addition to this, development kits are also increasingly being used to experiment with using wireless power, as we have seen in the element14 Community Wireless Power Challenge collaboration with Texas Instruments. By powering devices wirelessly, they are not only less reliant on fixed power sources, they can also become more autonomous, which is a particularly interesting benefit for areas such as automation, actuation and robotics.

In terms of connectivity, the popularity of smartphones is driving attach rates of wireless connectivity technologies including Bluetooth, WLAN, GPS and NFC. Bluetooth can be used to connect headsets, fitness and medical sensors or perform file transfers. WLAN can be used for internet access, VoIP services or fast file and media transfers. The most important driver for GPS integration in handsets today is arguable the interest in location-based services. Finally, NFC is a standard for short-range wireless, point-to-point communication operating in the unlicensed 13.56MHz band over distances of about 10cm. Next-generation development kits will be vital in assisting designers develop external user interfaces that meet NFC compliance with Reader mode, P2P mode and Card Emulation standards. This is an area set to grow hugely with the rise of the IoT as NFC becomes a feature that can be integrated into all manner of connected devices.

Finally, touch is the future of human machine interfacing (HMI) and is the way people are connecting with their smart devices. As more and more devices operating with the IoT become touch-based, development kits must provide the ease of configuring capacitive touch buttons that provide audio-to-haptics feedback, allowing designers to incorporate touch into a wider array of smart devices effectively and at low cost.

Dev kit: past, present, future

The development kit has already revolutionised the electronics industry in terms of opening up the design process for engineers, and later innovations such as the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone have democratised the design process even further. The rise of developer and engineer communities using development kits has been a key driver behind the changing relationship between suppliers, distributors and customers. This change will continue as development kits grow in sophistication.

The next set of key design challenges for development kits to help engineers overcome will be within the IoT – which brings new challenges to the industry and on a mass scale. It will be interesting to how communities continue to dictate the pace of change in the market, forcing the hand of engineers, developers and suppliers to provide solutions to answer real market needs.

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