The rise of rapid prototyping in the electronics industry

Electronics does not traditionally come under the remit of design engineers – the complexities of electronics design being a step too far for most mechanical or even electrical designers. However, electronics is becoming more accessible. The rise and rise of development boards like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, originally aimed at students and hobbyists, has resulted in new doors being opened for engineers wanting a fast and effective way of prototyping or building low volume systems.

Martin Keenan, head of applications strategy at RS Components, commented: "For an industrial engineer who hasn't designed from component level this access to electronics is pretty new."However, this does provide access, without requiring a full working knowledge. For example the Atmel Cortex M3 microprocessor that is at the heart of the Arduino Due development board has a datasheet of 1500 pages – an impenetrable information source for design engineers. "Industrial and mechanical engineers haven't got the time or the resource to evaluate everything if it is prohibitively complex," said Keenan. "So these engineers are becoming integrators and cobble things together - I think all engineers are when it is at the proof of concept, idea testing and prototype stages." Using these platforms during development – and beyond – has become standard practice as Keenan explained: "What they are doing is taking those rapid prototyping solutions such as Arduino, Raspberry Pi and the Parallella board [newly introduced in the UK via RS Components] and running end applications on them. Some of those end users will use the boards for rapid prototyping and then change it when they have reached a settled solution, especially if it moves to high volume. What they need is a concept that will work to make their mind up on whatever architecture they want to use. We want to help them get started so they can test these different architectures. When they have committed, from what we see, if it is high volume they tend to design out and so it becomes a custom solution." Even this relatively recent methodology may change with a new product in the Raspberry Pi family. "The Raspberry Pi compute module is certainly going to change things," claimed Keenan. "There is little to be gained by redesigning Raspberry Pi for a lot of industrial applications now because of the form factor they have now introduced. It is easy to plug that new form factor into an existing system and hang different systems and solutions off it. I think Raspberry Pi is going to lead the way in that regard." Software for prototyping Keenan concedes that there is some excellent design software on the market but current solutions fall into one of two 'buckets'. One bucket, said Keenan, is for high end tools: "Often they are optimised for high end customers who need extensive documentation, who need to track lots of changes and so on. Inherently they are not designed to be adaptable and to change things. They are designed for, and are brilliant at, taking an idea, sticking to it and pushing it out the end with the final product. The other bucket would be low cost entry level tools that generally have limitations. An example would be things like SketchUp and Blender which are free 3D design tools but are not targeted at engineers. They are targeted at the mass market and so designing anything complex in them becomes difficult." The gap between the two categories, claims Keenan, can be filled by DesignSpark Mechanical, a package which aims to 'give every engineer the power to quickly design and change product concepts in 3D without having to learn complex traditional CAD software. Keenan said: "We are focused for early in the design cycle – it is where engineers want to spend their time because that is where they can differentiate their designs." Consistent with the arguments above concerning engineers starting to dabble in electronics, DesignSpark Mechanical allows the import of electronic designs. 3D printing DesignSpark Mechanical, using SpaceClaim, does give access to that other major prototyping trend of the day – 3D printing. It is an area in which RS is expanding its portfolio. Keenan said: "3D printing is moving so quickly and becoming so much more accessible. The advancements keep coming in both the low cost of the printers and the materials. "For example the entry level Omerod RepRapPro range are kits that engineers will assemble themselves, optimise themselves, optimise the firmware and source codes themselves, it is all open source. And you can get pretty sophisticated resolution out of those printers at a very low cost. The caveat being that you have to spend some time in optimising them, but there is a vibrant open source community that can help with that." RS has also made progress in terms of the types of 3D printing materials and has just signed an agreement with Verbatim to cover two materials. Kennan said: "One is a biodegradable corn based filament that is non-toxic and eco-friendly and ideally suited to prototyping. But also they have got a high end material that is, for example, impact resistant." All these facets have come together as part of a deliberate policy concluded Keenan: "Nobody else has this complete range to help any engineer get off the ground, build rapid prototypes and innovate." Parallella development RS will bring the Parallella development board to the UK having signed a distribution agreement with Adapteva, producer of the Epiphany multicore coprocessor and developer of the Parallella-16 board. Parallella was introduced to the industry through a successful Kickstarter crowdsourcing campaign with the objective of democratising access to supercomputing. The open-source single board computer, the size of a credit card, can be used as a development platform, embedded engine, teaching platform or research tool and is easily scalable by clustering boards to create a mini-supercomputer for advanced parallel computing applications. "Adapteva is changing the way that people do computing as traditional approaches are nearing the end of their power efficiency," said Andrea Olofsson, CEO and Founder of Adapteva. "Parallella puts new capabilities in the hands of the novice and the expert. We are making parallel programming an everyday, low cost, accessible technology."