Random Insights Channel

Sometimes a topic is just too good to ignore, and it does not map cleanly into any specific embedded design principle. The Random Insights series is the place where you can find a smattering of interesting and thought provoking topics that do not map to the focus of any of the other channel series.

The Engineer: Marketing’s Secret Weapon

Monday, August 29th, 2011 by Rae Morrow and Bob Frostholm

For many engineers the most exciting part of developing a product is being able to say, “it’s done!” But this really isn’t the end of the cycle, getting the product to the market is the developer’s next step. Projects that involve engineers in the marketing process reap added benefits. Technical teams exploring your product, without exception, are more open with their information when speaking with you engineers. By taking advantage of this “brotherhood of engineers” bond, designers can glean insights into future needs and requirements to gain an early leg up on their next generation products.

Marketeers spend hours upon hours developing branding campaigns, datasheets, technical articles, ads, brochures, PowerPoint presentations, application notes, flashy web pages, and more to assist the sales force in winning a potential buyer’s trust and eventually their business. The quality of these tools is critical to the success of the front line salesperson. When these tools are inadequate, creativity steps in and all too often “winging it” results in some degree of lost credibility. We have all experienced the over exuberance of a salesperson trying to embellish their product beyond the point of believability.

Creating dynamite sales tools requires forethought and planning. It begins with a thorough understanding of the product’s value propositions. Whether the product concept is originated within the marketing department or the engineering department, it is the engineers who have to embed the values into the new product. Marketeers then need to extract those values from engineering in the form of features and benefits that can be translated easily into ‘sales-speak’. The information flow has gone from engineer to marketer to sales person to potential buyer.

There are dozens of different channels through which information is delivered to a potential buyer. It requires discipline to keep the message consistent across all of them.

Think back to your first grade class, when on a rainy day, the teacher gathered everyone in a circle and whispered something into the ear of the child to the right and then asked them to do the same to the child to their right. By the time the information came full circle to the teacher, it barely resembled the original message. Today, there are dozens of different channels through which information is delivered to a potential buyer. The critical technical information, that which can make or break a sale, originates in Engineering (See Figure).

It is obvious how confusing the message can become when the buyer is barraged with dozens of interpretations.  Some channels truncate the message to fit their format (how much can be communicated in 140 characters?) while others will rewrite and add interpretations and comparative analysis. In the end, the buyer does not know who to believe.

There are several ways to assure your company is delivering strong and consistent messaging. For some companies this means retaining a dedicated person in the marcom department with strong technical writing and organizational skills. Another solution is to work with a PR (public relations) firm that focuses on the electronic industry, and their team focuses on the timeliness of the communications flow and manages the various channels for consistency within the channel as well.

When all the basics have been covered, it is then time to deploy the secret weapon; the engineer. Placing engineers face to face with potential buyers is becoming a more common occurrence. The buyer’s appetite for the product has been stimulated by marketing’s branding and product positioning.  Properly executed, the positioning has resulted in several third party endorsements that the buyer cannot refute.

Exposing the knowledge, skills, and expertise of the engineering team furthers the confidence of potential buyers in their decision making process. Face to face does not necessarily mean flying the engineer half way around the world for a 1 hour meeting, although there are occasions where this may be necessary. Other equally effective techniques include:

  1. Publish “How To” articles, authored by the engineer-expert. Many times these are ghost written on the basis of inputs supplied by the engineer. A creative marketing effort will find many ways to promote and repurpose this content, whether in multiple regional markets or in different formats such as application notes, presentations, and Q&As.
  2. Host webinars that allow many potential buyers to simultaneously participate in a technical lecture or series of lectures provided by the engineer-expert. There is significant effort required for planning, promoting, and executing to ensure a qualified audience is in attendance.
  3. Publish “opinion” or ‘white” papers that address a general industry concern and offer pragmatic approaches to solutions demonstrate a level of expertise by the engineer.

While we often stereotype engineers as the ‘Dilberts’ or ‘Wallys’ of the world, they are in fact one of a company’s best assets in closing a sale. They deal in a world of facts and figures, and equations and laws of nature that do not change. They abhor vagueness and embrace truth. To the buyer, their word is golden. In the buyer’s mind, ‘they are one of us’.

It is difficult to avoid the adversarial nature of a sale. We’ve been taught that there is a winner and a loser in the transaction. Involving the engineer in the process can greatly lessen the tension and extract clearly the real value of the product to the buyer, yielding a win-win scenario.

Will flying cars start showing up on the road?

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

People have been dreaming of flying cars for decades. The Aerocar made its first flight in 1949; however, it never entered production manufacturing. The Terrafugia Transition recently passed a significant milestone when it was cleared for takeoff by the U.S. National Highway Safety Administration. Does this mean flying cars will soon start appearing on the roads? To clarify, these vehicles are not flying cars in so much as they are roadable light sport aircraft – in essence, they are aircraft that could be considered legal to drive on the streets. The approximately $230,000 price tag is also more indicative of an aircraft rather than an automobile.

The Transition incorporates automotive safety features such as a purpose-built energy absorbing crumple zone, a rigid carbon fiber occupant safety cage, and automotive-style driver and passenger airbags. According to the company, the Transition can take off or land at any public use general aviation airport with at least 2,500′ of runway. On the ground, the Transition can be driven on any road and parked in a standard parking space or household garage. The wings can fold and be stowed vertically on the sides of the vehicle in less than 30 seconds. Pilots will need a Sport Pilot license to fly the vehicle, which requires a minimum of 20 hours of flight time and passing a simple practical test in the aircraft. Drivers will also need a valid driver’s license for use on the ground.

So what makes this vehicle different from the many earlier, and unsuccessful, attempts at bringing a flying car or roadable aircraft to market? In addition to relying on modern engines and composite materials, this vehicle benefits from computer-based avionics. Are modern embedded systems sufficiently advanced and powerful enough to finally push the dream of a roadable aircraft into reality within the next few years? Or will such a dual-mode vehicle make more sense only after automobiles are better able to drive themselves around on the ground? While the $230,000 price tag will limit how many people can gain access to one of these vehicles (if they make it to production), I wonder if aircraft flying into homes will become an issue. Is this just another pipe dream, or are things different this time around that such a vehicle may start appearing on our roads?

Will the Internet become obsolete?

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

I saw an interesting question posed in a video the other day: “How much money would someone have to pay you to give up the internet for the rest of your life?” A professor in the video points out the huge gap between the value of using the Internet and the cost to use it. An implied assumption in the question is that the Internet will remain relevant throughout your entire lifetime, but the more I thought about the question, the more I began to wonder if that assumption is reasonable.

While there are many new technologies, devices, and services available today that did not exist a few decades ago, there is no guarantee that any of them will exist a few decades hence. I recently discovered a company that makes custom tables, and their comment on not integrating technology into their table designs illustrates an important point.

“We are determined to give you a table that will withstand the test of time. For example, if you wanted a music player in your table in the 1970s, you wanted an 8-track tape deck, 1980s a cassette tape deck, 1990s a CD player, 2000s an iPod docking station, 2010s a streaming device, and 2020s small spike that you impale into the listener’s tympanic bone, which is now the only way to listen to music, rendering the installation of any of the previous technology a useless scar upon your beautiful table. (No, we don’t actually know if that last one is where music is heading, but if it does, you heard it here first.) The same goes for laptop electrical cords. We can install attachments to deal with power cords, but at the rate battery technology is changing, like your cellular phone or mp3 player, you may just have a docking station you set it on at night, rendering the need for cords obsolete.”

I have seen a number of electronic technologies disappear from my own home and work office over the past few years. When I first setup a home office, I needed a fax machine and dedicated phone line for it. Both are gone today. I watched as my VHS tape collection became worthless, and as a result, my DVD collection is a bit more modest – thank goodness because now I hardly ever watch DVDs anymore because I can stream almost anything I want to watch on a demand basis. While we still have the expensive and beautiful cameras my wife and I bought, we never use them because some of the devices with integrated digital cameras are good enough quality, much easier to use, and much cheaper to use. My children would rather text their friends than actually talk to each other.

So, will the Internet become obsolete in a few decades time as something with more or better functions and is cheaper and easier to use replaces it? I am not sure because the Internet seems to embody a different concept than all of those other technologies that have become obsolete. The Internet is not tied to a specific technology, form factor, access method, or function other than connecting computing devices together.

In a sense, the Internet may be the ultimate embedded system because nearly everyone that uses it does not care about how it is implemented. Abstracting the function of connecting two sites from the underlying technology implemented may allow the Internet to avoid becoming obsolete and replaced. Or does it? Some smartphones differentiate themselves by how they access the Internet – 3G or 4G. Those smartphone will definitely become obsolete in a few years because the underlying technology of the Internet will definitely keep changing.

Will the Internet be replaced by something else? If so, what is you guess as to what will replace the Internet? If not, how will it evolve to encompass the new functions that currently do not exist? As more people and devices attach to the Internet, will it make sense to have separate infrastructures to support data for human and machine consumption?

What does the last Space Shuttle flight mean?

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

The final Space Shuttle launch is scheduled for July 8, 2011. This upcoming event is a bittersweet moment for me and, I suspect, for many other people. I spent many years working in aerospace on projects that included supporting the Space Shuttle Main Engines as well as a payload that was cancelled for political (rather than technical) reasons after two years of pre-launch effort.

Similar to the tip of an iceberg, the Space Shuttle is just the front face of the launch and mission infrastructure that was the Space Shuttle program. Like many embedded systems that are contained within end systems, there is a huge amount of ground equipment and technical teams that work behind the scenes to make the Space Shuttle a successful endeavor. So one question is – what is the future of that infrastructure once the Space Shuttle program is completely closed down?

While the United States space program has been a largely publicly funded effort for many decades, the door is now opening for private entities to step up and take the stage. I am hopeful this type of shift will enable a resurgence in the space program because more ideas will be able to compete on how to best deliver space-based services rather than relying on a central group driving the vast majority of the direction that the space program could go. The flurry of aerospace activity and innovation that the Orteig Prize spawned demonstrated that private groups of individuals can accomplish Herculean feats – in this case, flying non-stop across the Pacific Ocean, in either direction, between New York and Paris.

However, I am not sure that a public prize is necessary to spawn a resurgence in aerospace innovation. There are a number of private space ventures already underway, including Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, as well as those companies in the list of private spaceflight companies on Wikipedia.

Does the end of the Space Shuttle program as it has been for the past few decades mean the space program will change? If so, how will it change – especially the hidden (or embedded) infrastructure? Is space just an academic exercise or are there any private/commercial ventures that you think will crack open the potential of space services that become self-sustaining in a private world?

Low Power Design Course

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

In last week’s Question of the Week I asked “what makes an embedded design low power?” I asked if there was a way to describe low power design such that it accommodates moving the threshold definitions as technology continues to improve. The reader responses encompassed a common theme – that the magnitude of the system’s power consumption is not what defines it as a low power design. Rather, you must take into account the end-use requirements and compare the final implementation with other implementations for analogous functions to confirm that the “low power” implementation completes the function at less cost and/or less energy.

The impetus for this question comes from a new information center about the basics of design that we have added to Embedded Insights to supplement an online course that I recently put together and presented. The course is hosted at EE Times as part of their Fundamentals feature, and it is called Fundamentals of Low Power Design using the Intel Atom Processor.

A challenge in creating the course was to create an approach that imparted useful information to every type of embedded developer – not just the people that were interested in the target processor (the Intel Atom in this case). I developed a spectrum of low power design that expands the sweet spot concept that I have proposed for processor architectures. In this case, the spectrum identifies six (6) different target implementations that share a common goal and available techniques for low power/energy designs – but they may define their thresholds and optimization approaches differently. The categories identified in the spectrum are energy harvesting, disposable, replaceable, mobile, tethered with passive cooling, and tethered with active cooling. I briefly describe each of these categories in the course, and I will follow-up with articles that focus on each one.

The Basics Information Center aggregates and organizes information on the basics for design topics. The inaugural page includes a set of low power optimization datasheets for a number of processor architectures that I researched when developing the course – however, including them in the final version of the course material would disrupt the flow of the sponsored material, so we are providing them as supplemental material. The concepts in the datasheets are a work-in-progress, so we welcome any comments that help us to tweak and fill-in the content so that the lower power spectrum and datasheets become a more useful tool for describing embedded processors. The end goal is to take what we learn from this effort and incorporate it into a parts search engine for the Embedded Processing Directory.

The datasheets currently reflect the organization of the course material; we will probably need to change them to make the information more generally accessible. Please share any ideas or specific information that we can use to refine the datasheets.

The Embedded Processing Directory is Live!

Monday, July 12th, 2010 by Robert Cravotta

If your embedded project includes a software programmable processor, check out our Embedded Processing Directory. The directory collects detailed information about processors and cores from over 80 different manufacturers and suppliers. It delivers processor information to developers through 25 reports that sort and filter the data across different characteristics, including company name, processor size and type, instruction set architecture, and target applications.

The directory is an online resource that supports regular periodic updates so that developers can easily find the most recent processor offerings among the sea of options. We offer two different newsletters to help developers keep abreast of the constant flow of new processors. The Directory Updates Newsletter is a free bi-weekly update that only highlights changes and upcoming features for the directory. The Embedded Insights Newsletter is a free bi-weekly e-newsletter that also includes information and insights into design principles and industry trends. Each issue highlights articles, tools, and the “word on the street” for embedded systems. Rotating features include summaries of past questions of the week and highlights from active discussions in the embedded insights channels, as well as some light-hearted features.

Additional new features in the directory include navigation from each entry to specific and appropriate pages or sites about the part and company you are looking at. To encourage more companies to provide supplemental information for each processor that goes beyond the technical specification, we are collecting your requests for more information for each specific part and will be passing that information onto the appropriate companies. In this way, you have a way to more directly influence the amount and type of information that the directory can deliver to you.

Some fun facts about the directory. There are over 90,000 words of information in the master file used to create the 25 reports. The information in the master report spreads across over 30,000 cells. The “All processor by company” report, which is the closest thing to a master report for the directory, spans almost 200 printed pages. We designed the reports to allow you to examine the smallest portion possible of the entire listing to find the processors that matter most to your project.

We have an extensive roadmap of features and upgrades planned for the directory. These features include real-time interactive analysis and comparison, as well as a visualization engine that will allow you to look at and quickly compare processors in a new way. Sign up for our newsletter, check out the directory, and let us know what additional information you would like to see in the listings.