Thinking Inside the Box: Where Software & Hardware Collide

Date:   Wednesday , December 02, 2015

Headquartered in Singapore, Flex is an Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) provider which proffers engineering & manufacturing services to OEMs, while simultaneously taking care of the after-market and field services to support customer end-to-end supply chain requirements.

A day doesn\'t go by now without some news report on driverless cars or a new \'collaborative\' robot, or maybe the latest accidental drone attack on the White House. We all see what cheap computing power has brought us in our mobile devices, but if we look at some of the physical products that have been around in some cases for generations like cars, appliances or airplanes, we are in the midst of an equally profound revolution. The delivery of lots of new functionality and differentiation through software is possible through the revolution in hardware. There are also some challenges and new complexities to manage along the way. Understanding the foundations of this revolution is the first step to rethinking product strategy and what to pay attention to.

In this new world, systems thinking and the tight integration between hardware & software will determine how innovators stand out. Their products must be able to be constantly updated or optimized even after they\'re in the hands of consumers. To make this possible, traditional manufacturers will have to enter a world where electronic sensors & controls play a critical role. Working with supply-chain-solution specialists who bring out the best in competitive hardware will give product designers a distinct advantage over newcomers who only write codes.

More than Moore\'s Law

By now, most of us have heard of Moore\'s Law, proposed by Gordon Moore 50 years ago. His observation was that the number of transistors on a practical-sized chip doubles approximately every 18 months, and this has made computing cheaper & more powerful at the same time. But many of us have failed to appreciate the trends developing in parallel with Moore\'s Law (except those who are working in these areas). They have to do with the new & creative ways to harness all of this cheap computing power.

The first development is a revolution in solid-state power electronics, which is based on semiconductor devices that can switch high voltages & large currents. It affects how we control & convert electrical power from the tiny little chargers we plug into our iPhones to the switchboxes that route massive electrical voltages and currents on the grid. These days, we can switch just about anything under computer control, and we see the benefits in a wide range of applications such as the controls for tiny micro-motors used in disk drives, the electrical actuators that control the rearview mirror in your car, the servomotors used in machine tools, the variable frequency drives for motors used on factory floors, all the way up to the giant traction motors in locomotives & subway cars.

Since the 1950s, when modern solid-state power electronics got their start in Bell Labs and then toward the end of the decade with GE, there have been continual developments in semiconductor materials, processing methods, fabrication and packaging techniques. Along the way, companies developed new devices such as power MOSFETs and insulated-gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs), new converter topologies, and both the vector control & direct torque control used in variable frequency drives. These have brought a host of small, high-efficiency, low-cost and long-life electronic subsystems for motion control. For a few dollars, designers can easily harness a computer to remember the seat position in your car or for that matter control everything you need to make that car autonomous. All you have to do is add software.