Successful Endeavours - Electronics Designs That Work!

Digital Tomorrow is Today

The most recent Casey Cardinia Business Group breakfast heard from Chris Riddell, futurist. This is a summary of what he said.

Chris Riddell - Futurist

Chris Riddell – Futurist

The future is already here. The digital revolution has happened. So what about tomorrow?

This is the question Chris posed to the room at the start of his presentation.

Chris asserts that the technological revolution has already happened. Now it is Velocity that counts. So what does Velocity mean?
In Software Development, Velocity refers to the rate with which you are completing a project. If Velocity is too low, you will not finish on time. Ideally Velocity is above the original planned value and you will deliver ahead of schedule. At the very least, this allows you time to test comprehensively. Projects running late often compromise on test in order to save time. This tactic usually adds time in the long run.

His first example was OTTO. This is a start-up of ex Google employees who are developing self-driving track technology that can be retrofitted to existing trucks. So you don’t need to design a new vehicle, you can add their system to your existing fleet. They have early adopted product in the market (delivering beer via self-driving trucks) and hope to be fully market ready in 9 months. And uber bought OTTO. This rapid time to market is an example of the increasing Velocity available today.

OTTO self-driving truck

OTTO self-driving truck

A local example we are working with is Maintabase. This is a Melbourne based start-up that came to us 2 months ago with some “off the shelf” hardware to try and configure it as a demonstration of their asset management concept where you can monitor machine cycle and operating time automatically and identify when maintenance points will be reached. Like OTTO, this can be retrofitted to any existing machine. They were trying to use “off the shelf hardware” for good reason; low development cost. However the hardware was difficult to configure and use, not very flexible, and ultimately not what they wanted in a final product. It was never going to do what they needed and was only ever an interim measure. So we created the product they need and they are launching it at Future Assembly in the IoT Category. See Future Assembly – IoT – Maintabase for more details. So idea to launch in 8 weeks!

Maintabase

Maintabase

And then there is Tesla who have reinvented the modern passenger automobile and already offer autonomous cars.

Tesla

Tesla

And now a medical example. 23 and Me will send you a DNA kit. You provide a saliva sample in the test tube they provide. They then send you a detailed report describing your genetic ancestry, what health issues you will expect have in the future and even what kind of children you will have with your partner (you need 2 samples for that). This was banned in the USA due to concerns about how to regulate it so they moved to Europe and launched there. Now they are also able to operate in the USA. 5 years ago a service like this would have been prohibitively expensive. Now it is a very affordable tool to allow you to manage your life better.

23 and Me - Welcome to You

23 and Me – Welcome to You

We also see the huge burst of activity in Wearables that allow you to quantify things like quality of sleep, activity level and a whole range of health and other indicators. The Quantified Self requires measurement and these devices do a good deal of that already.

Lean Digital Start-Up

Computing technology is also changing so rapidly that you can do a hugely scalable start-up in a shed. This is technology going full circle. HP started in a shed. So did Google and Apple. The shed may become the new business launch model.

This allows a new class of business opportunities lumped under the banner of the Lean Start-Up. I’ve added “Digital” to the mix because there is a lot of emphasis now on being able to scale quickly. So we have the Lean Digital Start-Up. So low investment, low risk, potentially huge upside, potentially scalable. The failure rate of Lean Digital Start-Ups is unfortunately also huge. About 25 times the failure rate of conventional businesses. The risk due to failure is much lower and they can pivot rapidly. This is Agile applied to the Business Model.

Old world businesses are like huge plantations and have a specific focus and everything is about optimising that focal point. By comparison, the new business paradigm is like hacking your way through a rain forest looking for a breakthrough plant or animal that holds the cure to something incurable. The latter is a much more chaotic process and results are unpredictable.
Access to technology means that even mobile phone calls and SMS are old hat and is all about video, high speed data sharing and experience.

The Future – What Next?

BMW have just celebrated 100 years in business. That is a great achievement. If you go back 50 years, it was all about the product, the technology, the reliability. Today it is all about the experience. And they are talking about selling transportation services rather than vehicles in 10 years time.

Super Fluidity is now the norm. You can transfer data almost instantly to anywhere in the world. Today you can design a product , send the file somewhere else on the planet and have it 3D printed . You can now 3D print food. Oreos can be custom designed by you and then made for you and shipped to your address.

Why is Google self driving cars happening? Google do search and other data stuff. The answer from Google is that a driver-less car is a mechanical problem that needs an information solution. And Google are an information solution company.

Why is Lego still in business? It is a plastic block. Easy to copy and many have done it. Yet today they are the most influential toy company in the world. Everything is about the user. You can design your own kit, select the blocks, buy it and have it delivered to your door. You can build it on screen, have it 3D rendered and sent to your device to show or share with your friends.

Apple have enough cash on their books to pay out Greece’s national debt 3 times over and still run their business for a year even with no sales. And they did it by making their product easy to use and putting a full ecosystem together to support the user.

Air bnb, uber, Spotify and many other companies are leveraging great user experiences and offering great value.

We are headed into an era of no screens, augmented reality and where the world is your screen and data is your overlay.

Pretty exciting times lay ahead as we catch up with the capability the Digital Revolution already lays before us.

Successful Endeavours specialise in Electronics Design and Embedded Software Development, focusing on products that are intended to be Made In Australia. Ray Keefe has developed market leading electronics products in Australia for more than 30 years. This post is Copyright © 2016 Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

Software Testing

I recently met with an Australian Software Development company, PepperStack, and we got onto the subject of Software Testing. As someone who began their career as an Electronics Hardware Engineer, one of the things I learnt was that you have to test thoroughly to be sure everything is working as it should be. With Electronics, if you make a mistake with an Engineering Calculation you can easily destroy things. This is sometimes referred to as “letting the smoke out”. So it was good to meet with others who believe in the same level of rigorous software unit, module and system testing that we do.

Some Engineering Humour

Which reminds me of a joke I once heard:

There are 3 Engineers in a car going for a drive. The first is a Mechanical Engineer, the second an Electronics Engineer and the third is a Software Engineer. Fortunately the Mechanical Engineer is driving because the brakes fail and they are going downhill.  The Mechanical Engineer eventually brings the car safely to a halt and gets out to examine the hydraulic systems.  The Electronics Engineer gets out and checks and body computer, ABS system and the power train CAN bus.  The Software Engineer stays in the car and when queried about it says that they should all just get back in the car and see if it happens again!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not having a go at Software Engineers. The process of finding and eliminating faults is a very important part of the development cycle and is something that needs up front thinking and not just responding to symptoms.  And the more complex or sophisticated a system is, that harder it is to fully test every possible response to every possible stimuli and after a certain point it becomes impractical to have 100% Test Coverage (every line of code has been executed through all of the possible states).  The reason this is a bigger problem with Software Development is that the flexibility of software means that it is inherently complex and it takes skill and planning to manage that complexity so it is testable.

So here is the issue. More than any other discipline, faults can be experienced by an end user of a product under a situation or scenario you could not have proactively tested against before release.  There are many potential reasons for this including:

  • change of hardware or operating system environment
  • new standards or protocols
  • the sheer number of potential combinations of drivers, peripherals, software and users
  • the product being used for a purpose it wasn’t originally designed for
  • gamma ray corruption of a memory location – I am getting esoteric now but in some areas like avionics and space this is a big threat

So how do you reduce the likelihood of these problems occurring?

Improving Software Quality

With many new products having Electronics and Embedded Software and the Software Development requiring 80% of the effort, it is important to delivery it as quickly and fault free as you can. The main weapons in your Software Quality arsenal have been known about for a long time but are, in our experience, just not used.  These are:

  • Architectural Design – work out how the data and execution flow will happen and how you will manage the constraints
  • Functional Decomposition – divide and conquer but with an emphasis on how each module fits into the system and how the interfaces work in detail
  • Error handling – who will decide what to do with response codes – again this is data and execution flow and part of the architecture. In many cases exception management is at least 50% of the project.
  • Have an Integration Test Plan – some thing that proves the data and execution flow matches the architectural design.  Too often “it builds” seems to be good enough here.
  • Unit Test modules – so you remove all the issues before adding them to the integration
  • Do the Integration Tests before you try system testing
  • Design modules so you can integrate them as shells then add functionality down the track
  • Have NVM and configuration data available at the beginning of the project and not as an after thought at the end
  • Have a System Test Plan and use it
  • Use some of the good practices of Test Driven Development – run the tests every time you change the code
  • Have a rationale for what level of Code Coverage you can accept
  • Have a rationale for what level of Churn you can accept – Churn is the percentage of the lines of code that have changed in the past time period.  Usually either a week or month depending on the size of the project.
  • Use automated software quality tools. For instance we use both PC-Lint and RSM to automated many software quality metrics which saves a lot of time in Code Reviews
  • Use Code Reviews, also known as Software Peer Review.  It really does save time.

Next I plan to look at what you can learn about software testing from a Squash Racquet.

Ray Keefe has been developing high quality and market leading electronics products in Australia for nearly 30 years.  For more information go to his LinkedIn profile. This post is Copyright © 2010  Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

In this post we will look at the Product Development Process and how to get improved outcomes.  But first here is a fun graphic made from our logo.

Successful Endeavours - Making Electronics and Embedded Software Work

Successful Endeavours – Making Electronics and Embedded Software Work

Product Development Process

The Product Development Process is intended to reliably deliver new products for manufacture or distribution.  This is a critical component of a Product Strategy where you are creating the product rather than sourcing it from a supplier.   So you would think that it should be a highly optimised, well oiled machine that reliably delivers successful products. Alas that is not always the case. With 30 years of experience in Developing Products for a wide range of industries I have seen my share of projects handled well and not so well. Here are some general principles I have gleaned from my experience in Successful Product Development Projects:

  • Risks must be identified and managed.  Track them and eliminate them as soon as possible.
  • Anything clever or tricky needs to be checked by someone else.
  • Everything else also gets checked.  Design reviews, code walk-throughs and prototypes save time, money and heart ache later on.
  • Hold the timeline.  Foster an attitude that slippage is not acceptable.
  • Test and check everything.
  • It’s not finished until no-one has to do another thing to it.

So six core principles.  They are inter related of cousre.  Let’s look at how these work out in practice.

Successful Product Development Principles

Lets look at how each of these priciples can be used to improve the likelihood of a Successful Product Development Project.

Risk ManagementRiskManagement

Risk Management is an old idea.  Not surprising since risks have always existed. Did you know that during the Manhattan Project it was determined that there was a chance that a fission bomb could ignite the whole atmosphere ?  Having got contradictory reports the argument was eventually settled by a report showing that although it was possible, it was unlikely.  How comfortable would you feel running that risk ? Fortunately the average Development Project is dealing with much more mundane risks such as achieving Technical Requirements such as:

  • Power Consumption
  • Unit Manufacturing Cost
  • Performance Criteria

But the approach is still the same:

  • Identify the risk
  • Work out how to ameliorate the risk – reduce it – or eliminate it
  • Do tests to confirm the risk has been dealt with
  • Iterate until it is no longer a risk

Review the clever bits

Test Everything - Clever Design Needs Test

Test Everything – Clever Design Needs Test

Where possible, any particularly clever or tricky areas of the project need to be reviewed by someone not involved in the everyday work of the project.  This is primarily to ensure that assumptions are challenged.  If you can’t get an outsider to do the review, use a process like Six Thinking Hats by Edward De Bono which can allow team members to step outside their emotional and assumptive predispositions.  Unchallenged assumptions are unmanaged risks.

Review the rest of the project

Test Everything

Review Everything

The astute amongst would have noticed that I am proposing everything gets reviewed.  But the tricky bits get extra review.  This section is for the regular bits. Reviews are an essential tool to find mistakes early and eliminate problems down the track.  You don’t have to solve a problem you don’t have.   Or as Jack Ganssle famously quipped “Skip Bugging To Speed Delivery“. The whole article refers to using Code Review and Design Review to find problems early and fix them so they don’t become much bigger problems later on. Imagine a scenario where a Software Bug causes an electric motor to try and spin backward every now and again and then corrected itself almost immediately.  You would get a momentary shudder or jerk followed by correct motion and it would only happen every now and again.  How would you determine that this was a software fault and where the fault lay?  It could be symptomatic of any number of issues including Mechanical Design and Electrical Design. How about this similar real world case.  I won’t mention the company, but their elevators had an Integer Overflow problem in the motor controller that caused the elevator to go in the wrong direction, about once a month, for half a floor.  Very disconcerting to the passengers if they pressed up, and promptly dropped half a floor before then going up.  Fortunately they found it and fixed it before it happened to someone at the top or bottom floor. All the Software Industry Metrics show for that for Software Development; Design Review, Code Review, Unit Tests and System Simulation save money and time.  And yet in many projects they don’t happen enough or are done after the event as a Quality Assurance box ticking activity where they add mostly cost and little in the way of value.  Lean Coding argues that you can reduce your Software Development Budget in particular by doing Code Inspections during the project as part of the Risk Management and Quality Management process. By reducing the bugging, you can reduce the debugging.

Stick to the Timeline

Project Development Timeline

Project Development Timeline

An attitude that the schedule slipping is normal can be very costly.  Some examples of how to avoid this are:

  • Develop and Simulate the Software before the Hardware is ready
  • Prototype early and thoroughly
  • buy in IP where it makes financial sense – this can also reduce risk
  • get expert assistance with areas outside your competence
  • review regularly and honestly

As someone who has done a lot of team leading and project management, I have learned to ask about progress in more than one way.  I find the following to be very common: Manager: “This module is estimated as 10 days of work to complete.  How complete is it”? Developer: “About 80%”. Manager: “How many more days of work are required to fully finish everything”? Developer: “To fully finish everything, I would think 6 more days would cover it all”. The discrepancy is easy to spot.  People estimate high on progress because they want to please.  They also like to finish well so they tend to estimate conservatively on required effort.  In practice the real answer lies somewhere between the 2 extremes.  If the task had already consumed 6 days of effort then it is likely to run late. If you have ever built a house you might have experienced the knock on effect it has when one trades person doesn’t turn up and everyone else misses their scheduled action time because they are now waiting on a predecessor task, the trades person who has to come back again, before they can start their task.  The same thing happens on projects. So fight hard to hold to the schedule.  It is better to over resource a task (according to the plan) and get it done than to let everything and everyone slip which usually costs a lot more. Additionally, it is quite common that the later you are in the market, the lower the overall profit.  So it is worth holding the schedule for this reason as well.

Test and Check Everything

 
Test Everything

Test Everything

This is another Risk Management related principle. Don’t assume it will be OK.  Even if you have done it 100 times before, test it again this time.   Make sure it really is OK.  This ensures it really is 100% complete. This also implies that you are going to design things so they can be tested.  Another principle.  Design For Testability or somestimes called Design For Test. Do it.  It will save you time, effort, money and sleep. Test Driven Development is another example of a Modern Development Methodology where you set up the test first then develop the product so it passes the test.  If the Product Requirements change, you change the tests first, show that the old Product Design fails the test, then update the Product Design until it now passes the test.

It is not finished until no-one has to do anything else to it

Many tasks are called complete but they aren’t.  The documents might be checked into the Revision Control System, also known as a Version Control System or Version Management System,  but it isn’t complete until it is 100% tested, 100% integrated, 100% reviewed and 100% signed off and no-one has to do another thing. This also means that when tasks are identified that weren’t thought of in the original Project Plan, you then add them and don’t try and fiddle them into existing tasks.  This is different to working out the fine detail of a task and realising it is under resourced or over resourced on the Project Plan. You also want the extra tasks visible on the Project Management Plan so when you do the next project you have evidence that they were required last time and can make allowances for them.

Trip Assurance for Developers

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Satisfaction Guaranteed

In marketing, the term Trip Assurance refers to the client having a clear expectation of this transaction or experience being a good one, just like every other one has been.  I think we can begin to develop some of the same as developers whereby projects can be routinely good experiences and likely to be so each time.

 This post is also available as an eZine article with Expert Author classification.

Ray Keefe has been developing high quality and market leading electronics products in Australia for nearly 30 years.  For more information go to his LinkedIn profile. This post is Copyright © Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.

First some basic statistics that made me think about this issue a bit more:

  •  Software development is responsible for 80% of the delays and complications associated with designing a new product.  Source Embedded Forcast
  • 80% of embedded projects are delivered late.  Source Embedded.com
  • Software typically consumes 80% of the development budget.  Digital Avionics Handbook and Embedded.com
  • 80% of software projects are unsuccessful  IBM

That is a lot of 80% figures associated with the software component of product development.

So working from the Pareto Principle it is clear that product development success and cost can be most improved by addressing the Software Development component.  In my recent post on Reducing Electronics Manufacturing Parts Cost I argued that increasing the software component can reduce the hardware costs.  Which is a great idea as long as it doesn’t introduce an even more expensive problem. 

I agree with Jack Ganssle in his article looking at tools where he points out that software quality tools are often not budgetted for yet will find many classes of defect quickly and at a significantly lower cost than the test and debugging  effort required to find them after integration with the rest of the project.  Or put another way, the cheapest way to get rid of bugs is not to introduce them in the first place – Lean Coding.

Since we mainly develop in C and C++, this is what we do to ensure we minimise software development cost and overruns:

Static analysis and code reviews

We use static analysis and code quality tools such as PC-Lint and RSM and integrate them into our editors and IDEs so we can run the tests are part of our build or at the very least with a single click covering either the current file or the current project.  These tools find flaws you are hard pressed to identify by visual inpection and I believe they pay for themselves within a month of purchasing them.  They can also enforce coding standards.  Another great benefit is that when you do a code walkthrough and review, you are not looking for these classes of faults explicitly because you know the toolset will find them for you.  So the first thing you do is run the tests and focus on anything found there.

Code reviews save money.  Every issue identified in a code review is an issue you don’t have to debug later on. And another person is going to look at your code without the same assumptions you would so they will see the things you miss.  It just makes sense to do it.  Software debugging is more expensive than coding so not bugging in the first place is good budget management.

Smart Bear Software have an excellent whitepaper you can download for free that covers best practices of peer code review  and if this is a new idea to you, then I strongly recommend you get the whitepaper as they have distilled a lifetimes worth of learnign in this area into a concise and easily implementable strategy to improve code quality.

Unit testing

Next, we unit test.  A huge benefit of this is that you have to think about test and it makes you think about error handling in the design phase.  Many problems in implementing embedded systems come from not handling errors consistently.  Sometimes they aren’t handled at all!  In Failure is an option this gets explored a little.  Someone else once suggested that software developers were the most optimistic people on the market – you can tell this is true by looking at how they handle exceptions!  I’m not sure who said it so if you know then post a comment and I’ll credit them and provide a link too if you have one.

Integration testing

Integration testing itself does not have to be overly complex.  You want to know that things work and it is often easier to write a cut down system to manage the test process.  This way you are proving that each susbsystem is present and correct before doing the full scale system test.  This is an area that often gets overcomplicated.  Don;t try and do more here than you have to.

Oh, and by the way, just because something builds don’t mean it passes the integration test.  Some things to cover are:

  • software manifest – do I have the right version of each module?
  • data flow – do the higher level calls get at the right data lower down?
  • exceptions – do error returns get passed back?
  • exceptions again – if you raise exceptions, do they get acted on?
  • communications – does it communicate? 
  • IO – are they mapped to the right pins and peripherals?

Simulation

For some systems or subsystems we write fully fledged PC mocks around the code and ensure it handles all the parameter and error cases correctly and that all the functions are correctly implemented.  This is a form of integration testing that proves the software component of the system is doing what it is meant to but goes a lot further to fully excercise part of it.  And since 80% of the problems come from software this is a very effective way of reducing bugs and difficult to track down system defects that are expensive on time and resources to cover in real time operating tests.

To do this, you have to abstract the interface so the code can run in the embedded version or the PC version without any changes.  This is easy to do if you think about it in advance.

One word of caution; the PC has a lot more resources and clock speed available compared to a smaller embedded system so this is not a substitue for testing on the real hardware to ensure execution latency is acceptable.

And for the purposes of this post, the PC could just as easily be a Linux or Mac system.  The point is to use the higher level system to efficiently and fully test the embedded software module so you save time and money later on in the project.  And let’s face it, who like to be under unnecessary pressure at the back end of an embedded software project?

System testing

If you think in advance about how to most easily implement the system testing then you can save a lot here as well.  We put effort into deciding how the do the test process at the architecture design phase so that we have the data flow required to actually do the test.  This can be as simple as having some extra parameters or calls available to be able to inspect the state of the system and the communications facilities to get at this data.  Where possible 100% parameter range testing and 100% code coverage testing is very desirable.  One thing this means is that you had better think about how you will create each error condition that must be handled!

Low Cost Software Development

Low Cost Electronics Manufacture relies on Low Cost Software Development.  So make it a priority.  The Pareto Principle says that it is the most important thing to get right.

Ray Keefe has been developing high quality and market leading electronics products in Australia for nearly 30 years.  For more information go to his LinkedIn profile. This post is Copyright © Successful Endeavours Pty Ltd.