Wednesday, June 7, 2023

“FPGA-based designs fight obsoleteness”

Dexcel Electronics Designs is an embedded systems design house, meaning it works almost exclusively in the field of designing crucial components/sub-systems for larger systems. Started in 2000, Dexcel has evolved into a company with a blend of highly experienced and skilled technical teams in software development and hardware design. -- Binu Raj S, associate vice-president, Dexcel Electronics Designs Pvt Ltd, spoke to Ashwin Gopinath of EFY about challenges faced while designing for defence.

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Is this portable Data Acquisition System a completely DD product?
Yes, it was completely built by us and not for a specific client. We have sold these products to a few customers across the globe. In some cases, minor tweaking is required like matching the I/O requirement (digital or analog input) or form factor and so on.

On the topic of customisation, what kind of customisations do you introduce for products made for the Indian market?
This is something which depends entirely on the end customer. We deliver what they want; they come up with the specs and we design the product based on the specs. On the products that I mentioned, we have received customisation requests for the form factor, increase in memory depth, change in the number of I/Os supported among others.

So can you give us an example of certain specific customisations?
The main difference, as of now, is related to the certification. In Europe and the U.S, the certification norms are very stringent and take into account various parameters. In India, it’s not as stringent. The Indian Navy, on the other hand, uses a very different set of rules for certification. So depending on the customer, we have to conduct the customisations. Sometimes the certification is done by the end customer, so then what we do is make sure our design QUALIFIES their test.

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Obviously you have quite the impressive (not to mention, vast) portfolio. So does DD handle all its operations in-house?
Almost everything. The only area we outsource is board fabrication. Since it’s a very expensive and specialised setup, we usually outsource it to a few qualified vendors. We might also outsource certain specialised complex assemblies like BGA (Ball Grid Array) and special package assemblies. But otherwise we have a very skilled assembly team in-house and they can take care of most of our needs. As long as the production is less than 100-250, we can handle it in our assembly itself. If the quantity of production is above that, we generally outsource the assembly part and do the testing section in-house.

There are industry talks about using android on non-smartphone platforms like Industry Automation. Your thoughts?
Interestingly enough, we recently completed an android based Data Acquisition system right here. It has worked quite well for us. It has made the GUI very user friendly (the touch screen greatly improves the feel factor and subsequently, the user interactivity). We proposed this idea to our customers who were ok with it. So we went ahead and did it.

What challenges did you face while porting Android into your system?
Android, as you know, is mainly targeted at smart phones with high processing power and memory. Naturally, the processor vendors support only a small set of peripherals that are commonly used in the mobile industry. Coming to an embedded platform where resources are scarce and processing power limited, there could be a lot more peripheral components than the ones commonly used for handhelds. Generally handheld applications may not be very time critical. However timing criticality in embedded platform could be really crucial.

Supporting these vast set of peripherals (most of which weren’t common), was a challenge that we faced, when we used Android for the industrial environment. Our team could overcome these issues themselves and that’s how we have been able to successfully develop Android-based systems for industrial applications.

Which vertical do you see acquiring great demand in the future?
The consumers are now drifting considerably into Power Savvy designs. Semiconductor devices are being manufactured with better technologies every single day. With the reduction in micron thickness and the vast choices available now, we are able to meet the need. Some customers are even willing to redesign their entire legacy systems with the latest low power devices. That is definitely one area in which I expect to see great demand. Also, I think remote web based control will become very popular as well. The concept of getting to control something from distance is very captivating. LAN compatibility is becoming an industry default and we expect remote access to become the norm of the future.

So do your designs have LAN integration in them?
Most of our new designs have the LAN connectivity feature built in them. They also have remote accessing capabilities. So the engineers and technicians can log in from distance and do the configuration and get the status information.

Is remote access used only for access to movement restrictive areas?
Not exactly. Take an Intelligent Power Distribution unit for e.g. It is just like an extension box but with readings for all the major power parameters like voltage, current, power factor, power taken by load and so on.Take the case of a typical data center where there are lots of equipments and consequently lots of data movement. Monitoring the power and controlling it remotely becomes so easy with this feature. Regarding the data lines as well, we have made a unit, which helps the user know if someone has removed any data cable from a data centre. Providing this feature has not only made the system secure but has enabled easier debugging and troubleshooting of troubles. There are certain areas where it doesn’t make sense for humans to take all the readings manually. In such situations, all the technician has to do is log on and get the readings from the unit directly. He can then goes on and adjust the parameters as is necessary to keep the system working good.

What are the marketing strategies you employ to get more orders and new clients?
DD has been in this field for 12 years. We have a very good business development team. We have built up a host of key accounts. Our main stream of work comes as a repeat order from the clients based on the way we executed the initial order. Some of the work has come through their references. We have always focussed on providing great customer support (specifically after sales support). Also, we are alliance partners with most of the semiconductor vendors. They give us certain leads which help us get orders as well.

What about your fresher recruitment policy?
Yes we do, we have regular (every quarter) recruitment of fresh talent.

Do you aim mainly for IIT/NIT grads?
Well, we do look for IIT/NIT grads but we have never concentrated solely on them. We have identified a few colleges for this purpose along with a few embedded training divisions. The advantage with the latter is that they have already undergone a little bit of training so they can get to work quickly.

What about in-house training for people without much knowledge of hands on work?
Well, like I mentioned before, our training division is one of our verticals, so that can double up as a training institute for the untrained. We generally do not go for 3rd party training. We assign a mentor here itself who will train the inductee thoroughly in the field taking him through different levels of work. Every person has a particular field that he is interested in. It could be FPGA, board design, firmware, driver development or application software. So based on their leanings, we assign a particular mentor to him and we let then grow and foster in that field. Earlier, an electronics engineer used to do everything. Today is the age of specialisation. We encourage specialised training of the individual but also make sure he gets a basic overview of all the jobs involved (so he gets an idea of what happens at each level of the job). Our system ensures that when a person succeeds in reaching the managerial position, he/she always understands the effort and nature of the work in all areas.

Any particular skillsets that interest you?
For me at least, attitude is the most important skillset. Someone who is ready to learn or is eager to learn can be moulded accordingly. To be honest, communication skill, though it’s a great skill to possess, isn’t an “Essential” Skillset at the fresher level. And of course his basics should be clear (which is something I guess everyone knows)

How do you think the IDH scene will be in the next 5-10 years?
Now days, the market is such that everything is price sensitive and depends on speed of delivery. The client wants quicker designs. They couldn’t care less about the complexity of the solution. The average product cycle for any electronic good is around 6 months but a week ago, a customer wanted us to complete the product in 2 months. The thing is there are companies who can get it done in a short time. So in a way, the design business has become like a fast food chain. We are expected to be prepared with the commonly used designs and with a little modification. Also like I said, the low power consuming devices are expected to dominate the market in the foreseeable future.

How do you stay on top of your competition in this day and age?
There are a lot of independent design houses operating now. Every Company has its strengths. Hence, we cannot afford to miss our delivery dates or make mistakes in estimation or expect to get away with shoddy after sales service. Also we have to be on top of the latest devices and technologies. We aim to be the optimum solution providers for our customers. Since the market is full of options, the customer will likely stick to a group which he knows will serve their interests the best.

So what would you say is the USP of DD?
One thing would be the fact that we have an excellent tie-up with most of the silicon vendors. Thus we get early access to their devices. We can design for the future. For e.g., the vendors may be releasing a device 3-4 months down the line but we can start designing products based on THAT device because we have an early access program partnership with them. They share the device details with us so if they are launching the device in January (say), we would be ready with a board which uses the device by January. Thus it becomes a simple matter of plug and play and then rolling out the product quickly. Another thing is how good our customer relations are. We have received many repeat orders just because of the good relation and support we have provided to them

What do you think about the Indian design house scenario vs. the design houses abroad?
Take China, their basic advantage is how they can roll out a product at very cheap prices (labour is cheap; facilities are close by, lot of R&D). But there are major players who are insisting on quality. We have had several cases where clients, who were interacting with Chinese design houses, approached us because they wanted better quality, high durability, and strong after-sales support. If you ignore the cost criterion, then we are at par with many of the leaders in the semiconductor world.



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