High-tech predictions

Shorter cycles will accelerate co-design, increase complexity

Dan Headrick
26 October 2013

3 min read

John Blyler writes, teaches and speaks on technology, science and science fiction, and serves as chief content officer of Chip Design, Solid State Technology and Embedded Intel Solutions magazines. He is an affiliate professor of systems engineering at Portland State University, teaching graduate-level programs. Compass recently spoke to Blyler about trends in high tech.

COMPASS: The past decade has seen many milestones in hardware/software co-design. What do you think will stand out in the next decade?

JOHN BLYLER: Thanks to Moore’s Law and the efficiencies of engineering chips and boards, these things have become commodities. Companies have been forced to differentiate themselves with the software. Also, when you design a chip, you have to think about designing the board at the same time, so you get into the co-hardware/hardware design with software tying everything together.

That trend toward tighter integration is only going to accelerate. The time to get your product to market is shrinking, so you need to have software designed while the hardware is being designed. In many instances, the software demands at the user level are dictating what the chip design will be. Before, it was the other way around.

What are today’s biggest challenges in systems modeling, integration, and designing for the user?

JB: When I tell my engineering friends the movement is toward designing for the end user’s experience, they scratch their heads. It’s easy to see how that applies to software, because with software it’s easy to change on the fly. But for hardware, that’s trickier. How is that going to be implemented? That’s something the engineering community and manufacturing community are still wrestling with.

You see it in cell phones. The end-user input must come early in the design cycle as it will affect both the software and electrical-mechanical subsystems. Further, everything has to be low-power and green. You have a mountain of considerations, aside from just getting the product to work.

This is why we’re seeing a growing awareness of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) issues across engineering disciplines. So many pieces have to come together at the same time, and PLM is a big help with that challenge.

The term ‘cyber-physical system’ (CPS) is often used to describe the coordination of a system’s computational and physical elements. How do you see this trend developing?

JB: The other term I’ve heard for this is intelligent embedded systems, and it is being enabled by hardware and software getting so small that you don’t need a standalone system. We’re living in a world where sensors will be everywhere, and the sensors themselves have intelligence, called sensor fusion. You have a computer, a sensor with its own little network, and a wireless system that connects to a cloud.

You can even extend that to biology. There’s definitely a move to link the genetic space and the electronic space, to see more electronics embedded in the human body. These systems can get pretty sci-fi-ish, where even cells will be used as transistors.

“In many instances, the software demands at the user level are dictating what the chip design will be. Before, it was the other way around.”

John Blyler
High-Tech Editor & Educator

What about the wireless chip market?

JB: If you look at carrier sales, sales of frequency bands, the big push toward 60 GHz, we’re going to see more and more wireless connectivity. So wireless is appearing in big ways and little ways. Little ways like sensors in your tires to monitor tire pressure, or little wireless sensors in a field of crops that will tell you when the plants need watering.

That leads to a discussion of how to power these sensors. Energy scavengers are devices that grab energy from the environment, such as the rotation of the tire. Or out in the crop field, you could use solar, or you could get energy from the pH (acidity/alkalinity) differences between the soil and the plant to power a little RF (radio frequency) circuit and send the information eventually back to the cloud.

It’s all very exciting, and yet high tech is desperate to attract workers. How can the industry motivate students to go into high-tech careers?

JB: I actually teach a class on science fiction and science, which I think helps to engage the imaginations of young people. But technology itself can also help to excite students and highlight the possibilities of high-tech careers. Inexpensive 3D printers, for example, would be a great way to get people interested in technology.

“We’re living in a world where sensors will be everywhere, and the sensors themselves have intelligence.”

John Blyler
High-Tech Editor & Educator

One factor that’s often ignored when talking about high-tech careers is people skills. We need for technically savvy folks to also have good people skills and solid emotional IQ. I think the online push and social media take away a little bit from interpersonal skills. In a global environment, we need interpersonal skills and cultural sensitivity. We can’t only focus on the technical side of high tech.

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