Anyone who has been in the business for more than five minutes understands that the rate of change in electronics hardware development can sometimes be overwhelming. Just this year at the University of Michigan, a team has developed the world’s smallest computer, measuring just 0.3mm to a side, smaller than a grain of rice.
While most of us in this industry don’t need to work on projects that are that extreme, we do need to understand the latest trends in technology so that we keep up with the newest developments so that our hardware isn’t outdated before it’s released.
In this blog post, we will review the three big trends that we have seen with our customer projects in 2019.
1. Power is on Everyone’s Top Priority List
Whether an engineer needs to reduce power consumption on a commercial refrigerator to meet ENERGY STAR® requirements or trying to double the run time of a portable medical device for a patient, finding a way to reduce the power is paramount to a successful product launch. In order to most effectively deal with this issue, our teams are using a combination of both hardware and software/firmware to ensure that we are using the lowest power necessary.
For example, the use of switching regulators rather than linear regulators ensures that there is less heat dissipation on a battery pack, which will improve the cycle life of the battery pack. Another method is to use a microcontroller that has separate points for the power supply as this allows you to scale the output voltage using a programmable voltage converter. There are many other tricks of the trade when it comes to hardware and power consumption.
The most important tool that a designer must manage power is through the use of the software and firmware used in the application. The most common methods employed here are dynamic changes of the processor frequency, selective peripheral clocking, and the use of sleep mode when possible. By using the firmware to just turn off the components that are not being used by the application at that moment can improve run time by up to 50% in some applications.
While all these solutions may add some more upfront time and cost, along with some increase in components, it is well worth the additional cost for the increased user experience.
2. Cost of Touch Technology for User Interfaces Continues to Decline
Touch screen technology (hardware, controllers, software) are forecasted to grow 15% per year between now and 2024. Cell Phones, tablets, and laptops are among the consumer electronic products that we are most familiar with that use the capabilities due to their traditionally higher price point.
In recent years, even lower cost products, such as washing machines, refrigerators, exercise machines, etc., have utilized touch-enabled interfaces to offer a better consumer experience. Now we are seeing this technology become more prevalent in the medical, military, and instrumentation industries as the price continue to come down. This can be attributed to the fact that the number of touchscreen manufacturers has grown significantly. There are now thousands of touchscreen manufacturers around the world all providing some sort of products using touch technology for user interfaces. Big firms such as Samsung, Corning, LG, and 3M being in this space has driven the cost of manufacturing and raw materials down, which now makes this technology more accessible for lower tech non-traditional applications.
There is an availability of low-cost, all-in-one, plug-and-play touch displays. It used to be that to use touch technology a company would need to pick a display, fit it with a touch panel, choose a controller, and then program the code to make the touch panel work with the display and the end device. Today, a hardware developer can just connect to a touch screen with a USB and then either use the templates provided by the manufacturer or create custom screens using the graphical user interface (GUI) provided on the touchscreen. This means you don’t need someone who understands code to program the device.
3. Rigid-Flex PCBs are Not as Easy as They Look
Flex and rigid-flex PCBs are growing at a phenomenal rate given the speed in which many applications are getting smaller in size, and that is great news for the PCB industry. The challenge is that just because your factory can make rigid PCBs doesn’t mean that you can do flex and rigid-flex PCBs. On at least six occasions this year, I was at contract manufacturing facilities where the stack up, the position of components on the board in relation to the flex, or just inexperienced workmanship has cost a customer thousands of dollars as PCBs failed after assembly. These days, every fabricator has what they call a DFM check which in 95% of the cases is an automated review run through software that spits out results based upon general tolerances programmed in the algorithm. While this can work most of the time for rigid PCBs, it does not work for flex and rigid-flex circuits.
Experience matters and having a person with hands-on manufacturing experience reviewing the entire design before you put thousands of dollars of components on a board is critical.
Keep in mind that as the industry has slowed this year, everyone thinks that a sure way to grow is to start building flex and rigid-flex circuit boards because they already have 90% of the equipment needed to do so (or so they think). So, they buy a coverlay punch and a small coverlay laminating press, and now they are in the flex and rigid-flex business. To really be able to do flexible PCBs right and quickly requires significant investment. Laser drilling and routing equipment ($200,000), plasma desmear equipment to ensure high reliability plated through holes and laser direct imaging so that create those fine lines on materials down to ¼ ounce copper are truly a must along people and process developed to properly implement these technologies.
Getting a better understanding of the latest technology trends helps you keep up with the newest developments and helps ensure that your hardware doesn’t become old news before it is even released. Between tariffs and new technologies, 2019 was a busy year, but there is one thing that we can be sure of: change and new developments in technology need to be part of every company’s DNA.