How hardware makers are winning in a software-driven world

From cars to kitchen appliances, advanced computer software is no longer just the territory of sophisticated computers; it’s everywhere. A typical high-end automobile, for example, contains at least 50 million lines of code. For many manufacturers, the growing importance of code requires them to become software companies too.

 

Amazon has just made life a bit easier for culinary-challenged people everywhere. Its new smart microwave will cook meals with a simple voice command, no expertise required. For example, put a potato in and say “Alexa, microwave my potato,” and the appliance chooses the right settings for that dish.

The microwave works using Amazon’s Alexa Connect Kit, a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth low-energy module packed with software that automatically and securely connects to Amazon-managed cloud services – including the settings for microwaving hundreds of common dishes.

Spicing up low-tech devices with software is a common strategy these days, one that is dramatically changing what consumers expect from manufacturers. Today, mastering mechanical, electrical and form-factor design is not enough; manufacturers must understand software as well.

“We’re putting silicon into pretty much everything these days,” said Steve Koenig, vice president of Market Research at the US-based Consumer Technology Association (CTA). “We’re using software to enable a whole load of different features and functions in devices. It’s good news for consumers as these systems can be updated over the internet, so they’re getting access to new capabilities and improvements all the time.”

RISING COMPLEXITY

For many manufacturers, this means fundamentally changing what products they make and how they build them. In the automotive sector, for example, manufacturers are now creating what is, essentially, a robot with four wheels.

“Many models on the market are drive-by-wire – there is no mechanical linkage between the steering and wheels themselves,” CTA’s Koenig said. “And the engine is software defined, providing the instruction set telling the computer [car] how to operate.” 

By 2030, research firm McKinsey estimates that software will account for almost a third of vehicle content in a typical family car. Today, it makes up roughly 10 percent.

“Over the past 10 years, the level of complexity in the software that we’re managing has increased by a factor of at least five.”

Jean-François Salessy R&D senior vice president and head of the Electrical & Electronic Systems Division, PSA Group

“Over the past 10 years, the level of complexity in the software that we’re managing has increased by a factor of at least five,” said Jean-François Salessy, R&D senior vice president and head of the Electrical & Electronic Systems Division at French automotive manufacturer PSA Group. “When I began my career 30 years ago, the airborne computer that was managing the aircraft mission of Dassault Rafale had about 1 million lines of application code. Nowadays, our cars have around 50-60 million lines of code. More than 80 percent of the features in the car are fed by software.”

LET SOFTWARE LEAD

Like PSA’s Electrical & Electronic Systems Division, many manufacturers have created dedicated departments to focus on software innovation.

“The software team needs to take the lead in driving a product’s functional development,” Adam MacBeth, an engineering manager working on Google’s new operating system, Fuchsia, said in an interview with First Round Review. “Software is the aspect most responsible for creating the behavior exposed to the user.”

Ensuring that software and mechanical design complement one another, however, is a complex new challenge to manage.

“We must anticipate the software impact on the hardware,” PSA’s Salessy said. “We evaluate the architecture footprint of the software – space required for memory banks, accessible responsiveness and so forth.”

But the hardware and software disciplines tend to make assumptions about the other’s field that don’t pan out, requiring expensive change orders to resolve the errors, MacBeth said. “The hardware engineering team might assume something about software response time,” he said. “The software team might assume something about how the device will feel in someone’s hand. I’ve seen it happen where hardware is created that physically can’t enable the software to work.”

ORGANIZED FOR SUCCESS

To avoid software-hardware clashes requires complete visibility and strong collaboration between the two development teams.

Swiss appliance manufacturer V-ZUG, for example, uses a product innovation platform to help its employees work together effectively and avoid unpleasant, late-cycle surprises.

“One of the platform’s biggest advantages is that it provides an integrated solution for the different disciplines involved in product development,” said Petra Peter, mechanical engineering technician at V-ZUG.

“All product stakeholders – mechanical, electrical, software development – can collaborate on the most up-to-date version of a product’s data, which promotes a fluid exchange of ideas,” added Blaise Metzker, head of CAD/CAM at V-ZUG. “This transparency also increases product quality.”

Product innovation platforms that also support digital simulation go a step further, helping the various disciplines test their designs in a virtual environment to ensure that they perform as intended, well before production begins.

“Our team is developing new processes and technology where traditional design rules do not apply anymore,” said Sini Rytky, vice president of Product Management at TactoTek, an electronic systems manufacturer headquartered in Finland. “Simulation was seen as a solution to both verify the operation of electrical functions before building real parts and to speed up the design and time [available] for fine-tuning.”

COMBINING STYLE AND FUNCTION

Increasingly, experts agree, manufacturing leaders are defined by their ability to create seamless hardware and software experiences that connect multiple aspects of the consumer’s life and, ultimately, make daily tasks easier.

“The more powerful the influence your software has over your hardware, the more you can mold your product to fit users’ needs,” MacBeth said.

V-ZUG, for one, uses its software to differentiate its products from a host of competitors.

“We provide our customers with more functionality than what is usually found in the [appliance] industry,” said Ernst Dober, head of Development and Services at V-ZUG. “At the same time, it’s our priority to make our appliances easy to use. This is why we invented the ‘press and go’ feature, which automatically starts the desired program at the touch of a single button. We also provide recipes with our ovens and steam cookers in digital format, which can be used by anyone.”

While software can differentiate products, however, it won’t compensate for poor physical design. Consumers continue to show loyalty to products that are pleasing to the eye and comfortable in the hand.

“I believe that there will long be an emotional relationship between cars and humans,” PSA’s Salessy said. “At the 2018 Paris Motor Show, the crowd’s reaction to Peugeot’s e-Legend Concept car was incredible – and that was largely to do with its appearance. The esthetic of the car remains critical. Nonetheless, the way you interact with it is critical too. This is why we spend significant time on software impact on overall ergonomics, aiming at the best of both worlds.”

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von Rebecca Lambert

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