Low cost boards allow engineers to test their design ideas with different components. Development tools and single board computers are also putting powerful design tools in the hands of private innovators.
Consequently, the democratisation of the manufacturing industry is quickly becoming a reality. Finished products are getting to market quicker than we have ever seen before. This is a seriously disruptive change affecting our industry.
Sophisticated development tools are a key part of this as the remit of innovation has been opened up to independent development communities who are creating unique solutions to meet real market needs currently not serviced by suppliers.
The most important evolution in the development kit to date has been the single board computer (SBC). The success of two SBCs in particular, the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone, has sparked a particular interest in this type of development kit, which in turn has encouraged more manufacturers to develop them and more distributors to supply them.
These kits have the ability to work as a true stand-alone computer and, while they may not be comparable to the performance and power of most PCs, their low price-point, widespread support from manufacturers and educational value has led to their success.
The current uses of development kits are well documented – with embedded kits mostly used to test programmable components, usually microprocessors or microcontrollers and analogue kits servicing a wider array of functions such as sensing, power management and amplification.
For the electronics industry the internet of things (IoT) is the single most important trend that will globally boost the market and lead a new stage in its history.
In terms of where the development kit sits within that space, we can focus on three specific areas within the umbrella term of the IoT: power consumption, connectivity and touch.
At the same time as the proliferation to battery-powered hand-held devices we have seen HD display quality become the industry standard. This in turn has driven a never-ending quest for lower power consumption in the rest of the device and further ability to charge devices wirelessly.
Furthermore, as the IoT ultimately aims to connect devices in such a way that they are constantly gathering and interpreting signals and data, reducing the power consumption involved in simply making connections will become a huge priority for manufacturers.
Energy harvesting is one of the ways designers can reduce power consumption and an area that will be key to the future of the development kit as engineers look to create new ways of using energy more efficiently from the outset of the design process.
In addition to this, development kits are also increasingly being used to experiment with using wireless power. By powering devices wirelessly, they are not only less reliant on fixed power sources, they can also become more autonomous, which is a particularly interesting benefit for areas such as automation, actuation and robotics.
In terms of connectivity, the popularity of smartphones is driving attach rates of wireless connectivity technologies including Bluetooth, WLAN, GPS and NFC. Bluetooth can be used to connect headsets, fitness and medical sensors or perform file transfers.
WLAN can be used for internet access, VoIP services or fast file and media transfers. The most important driver for GPS integration in handsets today is arguably the interest in location-based services.
NFC is a standard for short-range wireless, point-to-point communication operating in the unlicensed 13.56 MHz band over distances of about 10cm.
Next-generation development kits will be vital in helping designers to develop external user interfaces that meet NFC compliance with reader mode, P2P mode and card emulation standards.
This is an area set to grow hugely with the rise of the IoT as NFC becomes a feature that can be integrated into all manner of connected devices.
Finally, touch is the future of human machine interfacing (HMI) and is the way people are connecting with their smart devices.
As more and more devices operating with the IoT become touch-based, development kits must provide the ease of configuring capacitive touch buttons that provide audio-to-haptics feedback, allowing designers to incorporate touch into a wider array of smart devices effectively and at low cost.
The next set of design challenges for development kits to help engineers overcome will be within the IoT – which brings new challenges to the industry and on a mass scale.
It will be interesting to see how communities continue to dictate the pace of change in the market, forcing the hands of engineers, developers and suppliers to provide solutions to answer real market needs.
Writer is Richard Curtin, global director of strategic alliance, element 14 (part of the Premier Farnell Group)