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SBCs look set to become a key part of the design process for OEMs and small businesses

Under more pressure than ever to get products to market, engineers are looking for ways of speed the process without risking quality or increasing the cost to unsustainable levels.

From a distributor’s perspective, a key part of this is getting products and components to customers as quickly as possible, but it also means looking at how the design process is changing and how product lines or ranges can be altered to ensure that customers get the support they need at every stage of the process.

Development kits have long been used in the design cycle; in fact, research conducted earlier this year found that 89% of engineers were already using dev kits to experiment with new systems. However, dev kits are not just being used to prototype designs. Along with single board computers (SBCs), they are increasingly empowering private innovators too. These independent groups are designing solutions to meet the niche market needs that are often overlooked by suppliers.

Driven by the proliferation of open-sourced, hobbyist-oriented devices, such as Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone and Arduino, the use of SBCs in the design process is starting to see real traction.

The explosion of SBCs

Raspberry Pi, launched with a vision of getting kids into coding and inspiring a future workforce to take an interest in electronics, has also found a market among professional engineers who can use it to help get products to market more quickly.

While SBCs have the ability to work as a stand-alone computer, boards have traditionally proved to be too expensive to incorporate into designs. What’s changing is that rapidly decreasing costs are making them more affordable for engineers, not just in prototyping and testing, but also in final products.

Using an SBC as part of a finished product can reduce time to market dramatically, as well as simplify the design process. Where a bigger company can negotiate bulk rates for components, smaller players often pay higher rates and wait for large orders in order to justify production costs. However, by using an SBC, it is increasingly possible for companies to benefit from the economies of scale enjoyed by the SBC manufacturer, driving down costs and the price of the finished product.

The adoption of SBCs is seen as enabling start-ups and talented makers to turn good ideas into commercial realities. For established SBCs, such as the Raspberry Pi, it also guarantees stability that newer dev kits can’t offer – again cutting time to market.

SBCs will not always be suited to being embedded into finished products; as a result, there is a growing trend towards offering bespoke customisation services. These will make it possible to open up new possibilities to designers and private innovators alike, particularly when it comes to the development of applications for the automotive, climate, energy and healthcare sectors.

By enabling them to modify the boards to suit their particular need and to use open source software, designers will no longer have to worry about every aspect of a prototype from scratch. This is playing a vital role in cutting time to market for engineers in some of the most popular technology sectors, including the connectivity driven IoT market.

Enter the custom SBC

Since the launch of the Raspberry Pi B in 2012, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been inundated with requests to customise different aspects of the board – the majority coming from engineers looking to embed the Pi in commercial products.

Recently, element14 and Raspberry Pi launched a customisation service which will give OEM customers and engineers the opportunity to create bespoke designs based upon the Raspberry Pi technology platform on a much larger scale.

It is interesting to note that a large percentage of the 7million Raspberry Pi units sold since 2012 have gone to manufacturers, rather than hobbyists. By providing customised boards, it is expected the market will move to a new level. Particularly for smaller companies trying to get a new product to market, being able to order custom versions of the Raspberry Pi will save having to deal with expensive production runs

Customisation of the Raspberry Pi can involve any changes to the layout of the circuit board, use of extra memory, a redesign of the interfaces as well other modifications that add or remove functionality and will give OEMs the flexibility to optimise boards for a particular design.

SBCs will not be suitable for every design and neither will the Raspberry Pi become the base of a plug-sized IoT device. However in the media, automation and IoT sectors, there is already a lot of interest in what SBCs can do. For example as a hub for home automation products or as a media centre – where more than 1m Raspberry Pi boards are already in use – there is a clear benefit in using an SBC, rather than designing something from scratch.

What may have held back SBCs is form factor and components – so if the final design only needs specific connectivity options or needs to fit into a small casing, then there’s no way the Beaglebone or Pi would be practical. Being able to customise these boards will enable engineers to add to and take away from the products, adapting as necessary to deliver the perfect fit for the end product.

Learning from customers

It is no longer just large companies that are bearing responsibility for the design of new dev kits, there has also been a sharp growth in the number of engineers specifying what they need from dev kits in order to bring their ideas to life.

While the custom Pi initiative is in its early days, it is expected that there will be a degree of uniformity in particular requests or redesigns. As such, there may well be new reference designs coming to market in the next few years that are based on popular SBCs, but driven by engineers’ demands and market needs. Particularly for vertical market applications, SBCs can serve a number of different niches without requiring expensive product development for a small market. It’s in areas such as this where we see custom SBCs really changing the design process.

Keeping up the pace

The components needed to realise these designs were once expensive and time consuming to design in, but thanks to the availability of budget-friendly SBCs, these are now accessible to more design engineers than ever. This has led to increasing desire amongst engineers for additional software and design services, which distributors and others involved in the production cycle are striving to satisfy.

It will be interesting to see how engineers and OEMs take advantage of these new trends and services. If our experience with the Raspberry Pi has taught us anything, it’s that engineers and makers will always surprise you with just how much they can do and what they can build.

Author profile:
Richard Curtin is senior director of strategic supplier development with element14.

Richard Curtin

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