New tech at the Engineering Design Show sets up an exciting embedded future

October 31, 2014 OpenSystems Media

Tools, support, and manufacturing developments at the 2014 Engineering Design Show demonstrate how embedded designs will get to market faster and be better than ever.

Bigger and busier than ever before, the 22-23 October 2014 Engineering Design Show bucks the trend of the historically floundering UK exhibition scene, with more than 150 exhibitors and a record number of visitors across the breadth of the electronic, embedded, and mechanical sectors of our industry.

Cleverly color coded, the exhibition splits itself clearly into those three sectors, and last year’s failure of companies finding themselves in the wrong sector has thankfully been resolved.

Whilst companies are always eager to present new products, the strong theme of fast time to market through improvements in development support and tools continued from its German sister show, embedded world.

Industry component behemoths RS Components and element14 continue to push their evidently successful support commitment. Though perhaps identical to the uninformed eye, when queried the key focus disparity is apparent: element14 heavily promotes their vast support forum, with engineers supporting each other, whilst RS Components believe the key to success is in heavy investment in software tools – though each portal of course provides both.

National Instruments‘ announcement excited me. As a historical proponent of the system-on-module (SOM) approach to embedded x86 design, the availability of their previously modularized embedded control and monitoring architecture in a SOM format has advantages I would never need explaining to me.

“Embedding”, in the true sense of the word, the incredible functionality that an NI solution offers will excite high-volume OEMs looking to reduce physical footprints and mechanical integration cost, opening doors to numerous new control and monitoring applications where compactness is increasingly critical.

What I was not anticipating at the show as the number of new manufacturing technologies in the PCB manufacturing sector, not necessarily famous for its focus on innovation. Such innovation can be faddish, with little real-world benefit (remember red and blue PCBs?) so I was pleasantly surprised.

Gemini Tec, a CEM that produces complex PCB assemblies, were premiering their “first in the UK” solder jet paste printing machine (think an inkjet printer for applying solder to PCBs) – enabling vastly increased control of solder application to micrometer accuracy. Finally negating the need for solder stencils in the SMT assembly process – reducing tooling costs, lead times, and “removing the 80 percent of PCBA defects directly attributable to the stencil printing processes.”

Improving traceability and fighting counterfeiting, Beta Layout‘s exciting innovation of embedding RFID tags into their PCBs really caught my eye. Incorporating RFID technology, now I’ve seen it, has such obvious benefits, including reducing traceability effort throughout the supply chain and employing a tamper proof serial number at the most basic.

Further uses for this technology include identification of those responsible for funding electronic waste, under the WEEE directive; localized programming of a device wirelessly without removing from secure packaging – which would have prevented a major incident where counterfeit chargers were bundled with new mobile phones at a distribution center; and, of course, speeding up logistics by tracking from goods in to dispatch without any human intervention.

Other innovation was more visual than functional, whilst my hesitance detailed earlier of multi-colored PCBs caused skepticism when faced with Eurocircuits‘ new “printable” PCB process, I was quickly sold on the benefits.

Clear enclosures, for example in car amplifiers, are increasingly popular and the ability to aesthetically enhance the PCB appearance here with graphics is obvious. I envisage a far better application for this, though, removing the limitation of the silk screening PCB labelling process.

Enabling a truly graphical silkscreen opens doors for clearer PCB labelling, simplifying diagnostics, and testing without constant referral to external references. I also saw an educational application here: self-explanatory development boards inspiring the next generation of electronic engineers to regain an excitement in our industry that I fear is becoming less sexy to our youth.

Finally, I spent time with Silicon Labs, excited about their own commitment to providing start to finish IoT solutions, from sensor to device to gateway. This creates a one-stop shop that perhaps has been missing from the IoT arena and has held back innovation, through lack of confidence in interoperability, as a result.

There are truly exciting times in our industry on their way and I remain grateful for having a front-row seat.

Rory Dear, European Editor/Technical Contributor
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