The future of hardware design is in the cloud. Many companies are already focused on the Internet of Things (IoT) and creating hardware to be interconnected in the cloud. However, can we get to a point where we build hardware itself in the cloud?
Traditional methods of building hardware in the cloud recalls the large industry of EDA software packages—board layouts, 3-D circuit assemblies, and chip design. It’s arguable that this industry emphasizes mechanical design, focusing on intricate chip placement, 3-D space, and connections. There are also cloud-based SPICE simulators for electronics—a less-than-user-friendly experience with limited libraries of generic parts. Simulators that do have a larger library also tend to have a larger associated cost. Finding exact parts can be a frustrating experience. A SPICE transistor typically does not have a BOM part number requiring a working design to become a sourcing hunt amongst several vendor offerings.
What if I want to create real hardware in the cloud, and build a project like those in Circuit Cellar articles? This is where I see the innovation that is changing the future of how we make electronics. We now have cloud platforms that provide you with the experience of using actual parts from vendors and interfacing them with a microcontroller. Component lists including servo motors, IR remotes with buttons, LCDs, buzzers with sound, and accelerometers are needed if you’re actually building a project. Definitive parts carried by vendors and not just generic ICs are crucial. Ask any design engineer—they have their typical parts that they reuse and trust in every design. They need to verify that these parts move and work, so having an online platform with these parts allows for a real world simulation.
An Arduino IDE that allows for real-time debugging and stepping through code in the cloud is powerful. Advanced microcontroller IDEs do not have external components in their simulators or environment. A platform that can interconnect a controller with external components in simulation mirrors real life closer than anything else. By observing rises in computer processing power, many opportunities may be realized in the future with other more complex MCUs.
Most hardware designers are unaware of the newest cloud offerings or have not worked with a platform enough to evaluate it as a game-changer. But imagine if new electronics makers and existing engineers could learn and innovate without hardware for free in the cloud.
I remember spending considerable time working on circuit boards to learn the hardware “maker” side of electronics. I would typically start with a breadboard to build basic circuits. Afterwards it was migrated to a protoboard to build a smaller, robust circuit that could be soldered together. Several confident projects later, I jumped to designing and producing PCB boards that eventually led to an entirely different level in the semiconductor industry. Once the boards were designed, all the motors, sensors, and external parts could be assembled to the board for testing.
Traditionally, an assembled PCB was needed to run the hardware design—to test it for reliability, to program it, and to verify it works as desired. Parts could be implemented separately, but in the end, a final assembled design was required for software testing, peripheral integration, and quality testing. Imagine how this is now different using a hardware simulation. The quality aspect will always be tied to actual hardware testing, but the design phase is definitely undergoing disruption. A user can simply modify and test until the design works to their liking, and then design it straight away to a PCB after several online designs failures, all without consequence.
With an online simulation platform, aspiring engineers can now have experiences different from my traditional one. They don’t need labs or breadboards to blink LEDs. The cloud equalizes access to technology regardless of background. Hardware designs can flow like software. Instead of sending electronics kits to countries with importation issues, hardware designs can be shared online and people can toggle buttons and user test it. Students do not have to buy expensive hardware, batteries, or anything more than a computer.
An online simulation platform also affects the design cycle. Hardware design cycles can be fast when needed, but it’s not like software. But by merging the two sides means thousands can access a design and provide feedback overnight, just like a Facebook update. Changes to a design can be done instantly and deployed at the same time—an unheard of cycle time. That’s software’s contribution to the traditional hardware one.
There are other possibilities for hardware simulation on the end product side of the market. For instance, crowdfunding websites have become popular destinations for funding projects. But should we trust a simple video representing a working prototype and then buy the hardware ahead of a production? Why can’t we play with the real hardware online? By using an online simulation of actual hardware, even less can be invested in terms of hardware costs, and in the virtual environment, potential customers can experience the end product built on a real electronic design.
Subtle changes tend to build up and then avalanche to make dramatic changes in how industries operate. Seeing the early signs—realizing something should be simpler—allows you to ask questions and determine where market gaps exist. Hardware simulation in the cloud will change the future of electronics design, and it will provide a great platform for showcasing your designs and teaching others about the industry.
John Young is the Product Marketing Manager for Autodesk’s 123D Circuits (https://123d.circuits.io/) focusing on building a free online simulator for electronics. He has a semiconductor background in designing products—from R&D to market launch for Freescale and Renesas. His passion is finding the right market segment and building new/revamped products. He holds a BSEE from Florida Atlantic University, an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and is pursuing a project management certification from Stanford.