Development Kits: Moving Beyond the Prototype

By Cliff Ortmeyer, Global Head of Solutions Development and Technical Marketing, Premier Farnell

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Development kits, commonly referred to simply as “dev kits”, are a set of software development tools that are helping to shape modern day electronics, pushing innovation through several segments of the industry. Dev kits play a pivotal role in the nascent stages of the design process, from wireless and sending to the Internet of Things (IoT) and power management. One of their key benefits is that they enable engineers to test and try their designs much more quickly and in a cost-efficient manner.

Dev kits are a critical component to any designer’s toolkit. After conducting research with the help of over 1,500 designers in order to further explore how they tackle the process of design, 89 percent of said designers used dev kits in order to successfully experiment with new systems.

It is important to note, however, that dev kits are not only being used to prototype designs, in fact, they have several other uses as well. Much like single board computers, dev kits are also enabling private innovators. With the force of disruptive technologies such as IoT that often include complex systems with sensors and modules communicating wirelessly with other devices through the cloud, suppliers are seeking to offer end-to-end solutions. This would greatly simplify the process of making multi-platform IoT ecosystems that run efficiently.

Not only have IoT designs activated a democratization of the manufacturing industry, but these designs have also caused a change in the connection between distributors and their customers. It is no longer sufficient for distributors to supply just the individual components, customers are now more demanding than ever and require complete solutions that entirely support the entire process – a process which dev kits play an integral role in.

Dev Kits in the Classroom

It has become quite clear that engineers are no longer using dev kits and SBCs just to test their ideas but rather integrating them directly into their designs, drastically reducing development time and cost, and further enabling designers to push their finished product to market in record time. Findings from the research showed that nearly 80 percent of designs using a dev kit reached production in less than one year.

The BeagleBone Black and Raspberry Pi are two such single board computers that have been very successful in recent years. Through their ability to work as stand-alone computers and the extensive support of manufacturers as well as their tempting price point, more and more resellers are encouraged to stock them resulting in wider availability. Now, people with all levels of engineering and development skills are encouraged to use them.

The element14 Community’s recent Pi IoT Smarter Spaces competition demonstrated the versatility of the Raspberry Pi 3 dev board, and its applicability to a broad range of development challenges. The challenge centered around creating a command center to control all the IoT devices in a space – home, work or outdoors. The winning design, a voice-controlled smart home interface for energy monitoring, security, controlling home appliances and even entertainment, showed the dev board’s impressive flexibility. Other designs included a Plant Health Smart Camera solution that monitors plant growth and health via the internet and a remote horse feeder system that could keep a horse fed and watered while its owner is away.

The Future of the Dev Kit

The research also highlighted that 76 percent of engineers agreed that dev kits were a critical component for encouraging innovation in modern design and technology. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the future of the dev kit is quite closely linked to the future of the industry of electronics. They go hand in hand. The dev kits of yesteryear were simple tools to test ideas, but today they are pumping life into prototypes that would have earlier been too expensive to risk pursuing.

During the recent element14 Community Safe & Sound Design Challenge, the Texas Instrument MSP432 Launchpad was poised as the foundation for building wearable technologies that can protect people from personal or environmental risk. The competition was open to not only electronic engineers but to apparel designers’ incorporating Launchpad connections into smart garments. The winner created an Invisible Hazardous Environmental Factors Monitoring System which scans the immediate environment for dangerous levels of radiation, carbon monoxide, dangerous alcohol levels and other toxic gasses to protect the wearer from harm. Other entries included a Cold Weather Survival Suit, Safety Jackets for the Tolling Industry, Wearable tracking devices for miners and a T-shirt for Monitoring Elderly and Physically Challenged Patients.

Keep the Momentum Alive

The future of dev kits relies heavily on the manufacturers listening to and incorporating real engineers’ opinions into their products to ensure that they are constantly transforming and growing.

Through the continuous gathering of opinion and feedback, we were able to gather that alongside a continued desire for technologies to make life easier, there is also keen interest amongst engineers in innovations within the healthcare, environmental and renewable energy sectors. When planning the functionality of future dev kits, manufacturers need to take this information into consideration, ensuring they meet the needs of the designs that engineers are interested in pursuing.

In most IoT designs, energy efficiency is a requirement as devices are often distant from traditional power sources. Taking this into consideration, it would make sense to then create dev kits that require very low levels of energy, or that can be designed to harvest their own energy. The element14 community’s Vertical Farming Challenge, based on Silicon Labs EFM32 Zero Gecko Starter Kit, focused on designing solutions to grow fresh food in urban areas, closer to the populations that will consume it. This meant shifting from traditional outdoor gardens to indoor systems for food production. The winning entrant was the Modular Farm Project, an urban farming solution employing an artificial intelligence vision system for garden monitoring. Moreover, the system was able to generate, harvest and store energy locally using a solar panel, a battery pack and auxiliary hardware modules, creating a garden environment that could operate with minimal energy input.

Providing the Components for Complete System Solutions

There is no doubt that dev kits are opening up the electronics design process to a wider audience of engineers, both professionals, and hobbyists alike. Through the use of these low cost, ready-made boards and new ready-to-integrate components with specialized functionality, designers, and independent communities are developing products at the forefront of innovation – and getting them to market faster than ever before.

However, this level of adoption and innovation will not sustain itself forever.  Manufacturers and suppliers need to continue evolving their product offerings and taking the time to speak with engineers themselves to ensure that they are aligned with the components and features that engineers themselves require.

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