The other day I was at a coffee house sitting alone at a table waiting for my appointment to arrive. As I sat with my coffee I observed two gentlemen talking at a nearby table. I could not hear their conversation but I could see their actions. One of the guys was talking actively with his hands, looking like he was explaining something exciting. He then grabbed a pen and a napkin and began drawing on the napkin. I could see from my table that he was drawing what looked like a circuit board block diagram. When he finished, he handed the napkin to his counterpart and they continued their discussion.
Their interaction reminded me of how the embedded industry has evolved. I have heard many stories of high-tech product companies that have outsourced their hardware designs. The day has come where a product company can draw a block diagram on a napkin and hand it to a Contract Manufacturer (CM) and ask them to produce ten or a million electronic devices matching the rough design.
Contract manufactures continue to evolve and offer more services, including hardware design and software development services for creating complex processor-based devices. They can take a rough concept and deliver a quote for delivering fully validated devices in any quantity. The CM offers a simple per device charge for delivering fully validated devices. They handle the design, layout, assembly, testing, and even getting software running on the complex device. And if desired, they even handle the distribution of product and returns handling.
The firm hiring the CM often shops around and finds the arrangement and quote best suited for their business requirements. Once the firm selects a source they are usually locked into that CM, at least for the duration of the project or build. The firm pays for the design, test development, material costs, labor, and any other services agreed on.
In the area of functional test requirements, the firm sets the overall requirements that constitute the procedure used to validate each unit before delivery and acceptance. The firm pays for the development of the test cases and processes, but the CM typically retains the experience and tools.
CM Test Process
A typical test process will involve loading software onto the devices after assembly and running that software to verify various functional elements of the device. For example, if they are building a tablet, software is loaded to initialize the display and put up various test patterns to validate that the display is functioning. Software is used to program and configure all the functional aspects of the device including cellular modems, wireless chips, touch screens, USB, storage drives, and many others. The CM obtains the technical documents from chip suppliers and modifies or creates the software to perform the test cases required.
Making a Change
If a firm decides to second source product development, or make a switch to a new manufacturer out right, there are a number of challenges. The manufacturing world is highly competitive and manufacturers do not want to lose any intellectual property they developed. The design belongs to the firm but most often the manufacturer does not want to transfer their test process and tools to a competing firm, even if the test process and tools are transferable. When the product company makes the switch, they often end up paying the new manufacturer again to obtain the needed technical documents and develop the test tools and process required for reliable device production.
One solution for the firm is to use their own internal test solution or use a third party test solution. This test solution is delivered to the manufacturer and used to validate every unit produced. This method ensures that the product firm has a known reliable mechanism for validating the product delivered to them, one they control. This method provides a second opinion into the reliability of the units produced. This method also provides a way for the firm to re-validate devices upon delivery.
Using their own test solution, instead of relying on the manufacturers, also provides a great deal more portability. If the firm switches to a new manufacturer, they own the test tools and process and merely deliver that solution to the new manufacturer. In addition, the firm has removed the delay and obstacle of waiting for the CM to develop new test suites for the latest technology. These days, software development is most often the long pole in product development and creating test software to validate the hardware is no exception.
Kozio provides such a solution in a ready-to-run package for custom hardware designs. The Kozio solution (VTOS) is an operating-system-like environment that provides extensible diagnostic tests to exercise hardware for embedded systems. It consists of multiple interfaces to a scriptable interpreter that runs at full speed on the device and provides access to a full API and library of functional tests and utilities. The Kozio solution eliminates up-front development effort, delivers a fully validated solution with expert support, and slashes hardware validation and software integration efforts. The Kozio solution is highly reusable from team to team and to one or more manufacturing providers.
Having a portable manufacturing test solution enables the product company to remain most flexible in choosing a manufacturer or switching to a new one.