Selecting the right development boards for your products is challenging due to the myriad of types and sub-categories. Let’s try to understand what industry-ready community boards are before incorporating them into our designs.
Microcontroller boards like Arduino Uno and ESP32 have certainly made it easy for DIYers and hobbyists to implement their fun ideas and projects in a cost-effective way. But in a professional scenario, where commercially viable embedded devices are to be made, most engineers use these boards for just implementing their proof-of-concept. The next stage of the product development process requires developers to finalise their components, create specification sheets, and ensure that their device is capable of working successfully as a product and not a prototype.
While it is a common practice to migrate from a development board to a custom PCB design, one should also consider the possibility of using industry-ready community boards in one or more steps in the product development life cycle.
Most semiconductor manufacturers create a development board for each microcontroller chip they launch. Nearly all can be programmed using open source integrated development environments (IDEs) and are extremely easy to use. But some of the chips like ATMega328P (the one used in Arduino Uno) offer only basic features.
Then there are others like XMC47xx from Infineon that have a larger memory size, more embedded interfaces, more input-output pins, and, in general, better performance. Simply put, industry-level boards are development boards based on these chips. Although these boards are created for an engineer to get familiarised with the chip and for easy firmware development, they are often considered to be production-level boards. Thanks to their comprehensive features and a wide range of desirable attributes, engineers can choose to deploy them directly in their products. Moreover, they are backed by multiple online forums and communities.
According to their specifications, applications, and areas of production, development boards need to be certified by FCC (Federal Communications Commission) or similar organisations. Most of them are also under the scope of RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) and need to be RoHS compliant.
When to use them
Instead of using a general-purpose development board that is not specifically designed for a particular application, engineers can use an industry-ready development board even at the prototyping stage. Migrating from the Arduino framework to one that is a little advanced might be viewed as a hassle. But it should be considered as an investment for a smoother transition from R&D to production.
For alpha and beta testing
After the proof-of-concept is made, it is time to start testing it. Alpha and beta testing for hardware is very different from its software counterpart. This testing is done in a controlled environment that mimics the environment in which the end product is to be located. A custom PCB takes approximately 7 to 10 revisions before being ready. Since hardware development is an iterative process, using industry-ready boards at this stage will definitely save time and money. With a huge variety of boards to select from, engineers can do their due diligence and select one whose microcontroller chip can be used in their PCBs after successful testing. Thus, industry-ready boards can be used as a temporary solution to reduce time to market.
For your minimum viable product (MVP)
Although the full form says that it is a product, more often than not companies treat their MVP as a part of their development process. Most hardware startups do not prefer to invest too much money in the first version of anything that launches into the market. In such a scenario, using an industry-ready board will not only benefit the company financially but also ensure a quality product. Similar to the case of alpha and beta testing, engineers can migrate to custom PCBs once they are sure of the product’s maturity on the field. In this case, these boards provide an interim solution that allows the R&D team to understand the viability of the technology they have developed.
When to use in end products
By definition, development boards contain peripherals and circuitry that allow engineers to experiment and prototype. Generally, development boards are not used in appliances because they contain circuitry that may not be required in the final product. This affects the battery life and efficiency of the device. Hence, a custom PCB is made at this stage.
That being said, almost all industry-ready boards are tailored for a particular application. If selected wisely according to the requirements of the final product, they can even be used as a permanent solution. Using them is easier if the final product is to be stationary and connected to a continuous power supply, like a gateway node in Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications. Nevertheless, rigorous quality assurance must be done based on the environment in which the final product is to be launched.
Ten industry-ready boards
1. Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 (CM4002008)
This module is particularly designed for end applications. It has a powerful compute engine that is far superior to its predecessors. It is also the first to offer an external antenna connector, which is vital in industrial applications. This is because the circuitry is always present in an enclosure, which inhibits Wi-Fi connectivity. But here, we can directly connect a certified antenna (also sold by Raspberry Pi) and enjoy a really good Wi-Fi connection.
2. Portenta H7 (ABX00042)
This board is a complete package for IoT applications. It contains an ESP based microcontroller, which makes it easy for developers with prior experience in ESP8266 or ESP32 to start using this board. With its industry-grade hardware and IoT cloud platform (Zerynth Cloud), ZM1-DB can be viewed as a useful solution for prototyping as well as direct deployment. It contains an interface standard called zBus, which allows us to easily expand the board’s capabilities using various expansion boards provided by Zerynth. Therefore, it is heavily customisable and can be tailored to any end application.
This board from STMicroelectronics provides a cost-effective and energy-efficient solution to developers. The STM32 ecosystem and communities provide a good platform for understanding this board and learning how to use it. It integrates an on-board debugger/programmer and can be programmed using various IDEs. It is suitable for applications with many peripherals since all STM32 input-output pins are available for use. It consumes extremely low power despite having a few components that are in general power-hungry.
The Freedom Development board range from NXP is appropriate for embedded hardware and IoT development and is packed with NXP sensors. Each board has different features, and hence an engineer can select a board according to a particular application. The FRDM-KE15Z board contains an RGB LED, a 3-axis gyroscope, a temperature sensor, and two capacitive touchpads. Also, the NXP community is a good platform for beginners to post their queries and get them solved by experienced developers.
In several applications, IoT, ML, and AI go hand in hand. The BeagleBone AI is particularly suited for embedded artificial intelligence and has become popular in the BeagleBoard community. It allows users to implement neural networks and TensorFlow models. Moreover, it has programmable real-time units (PRUs) that can be used for time-sensitive applications while the intense computing tasks are done on its ARM processor.
It has all the necessary features needed for IoT prototyping and embedded product development including light sensor, pressure sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) connectivity. Since it is compatible with Arduino IDE, you can leverage your knowledge in the Arduino framework to make innovative projects.
Commonly known as the XMC4700 Relax Kit, this board can be used as an Industrial IoT (IIoT) node or as a gateway in commercial applications. It has an onboard micro SD card slot that not just expands the memory but can also be used to ensure that data is stored locally on the device, thus preventing data loss. Infineon has also created several user groups on its community website where developers can participate in discussions and post queries regarding this board, if required.
9. Nvidia AGX Xavier Industrial
It promises fast AI development and AI inferencing capabilities on edge devices. It can be useful for applications involving edge computing, which is significant in modern AI devices these days. It has an operating lifetime of ten years and works on extremely low power. Smart cities, logistics, and autonomous robots are desirable application areas for this board. Nvidia also offers AI certifications to those who submit their Jetson based projects to the Jetson developer community.
10. Particle Argon
This board is known for its usage in Wi-Fi applications. It allows the creation of mesh networks. This means that even if one device is connected to the internet, all devices in the network are connected to the internet. You can even power it using a LiPo (lithium-ion polymer) battery. Programming and troubleshooting the board is extremely easy due to the user-friendly Particle Web IDE and the Particle community.
A detailed comparison of these boards is given in Table 1.
The author, Aaryaa Padhyegurjar, is an Industry 4.0 enthusiast with a keen interest in innovation and research.