Throw back the little ones

Nov. 1, 2006
It’s a wise engineer who learns that improvization may be the only path around artificial supply shortages.

It’s a wise engineer who learns that improvization may be the only path around artificial supply shortages.

Philosopher, poet, and cultural critic George Santayana is a principal figure in classical American philosophy. He’s the man, after all, who wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” in hisThe Life of Reason, published more than a century ago. In the electronics industry, at least, even those who remember the past can do nothing to avoid repeating the problems that plague the designers of new technologies, devices, and the products based around them.

When I lived in England many years ago, I became acquainted with a clever designer- Martin Jackson. Jackson was so clever, in fact, that in one year he designed more than ten VME and PC add-in boards for companies located in Cambridge. Once, I was fortunate to visit Jackson at his farmhouse, where he introduced me to his horse and showed me his office, which was replete with data books from all the usual suspects. I asked him about the designs of the boards and where they were. “In my head,” he answered.

Then, of course, being a journalist, I had to quiz Jackson on one of his latest designs. “One of the main problems of dealing with US semiconductor companies from England,” he said, “is that they only want to deal with those located in the United States-and only those companies that are willing to purchase components in very large volumes.”

Jackson’s problem was that his more recent creation used one of the latest microprocessors from a well-known Santa Clara, CA-based company. But he knew how to overcome the problem. He purchased an evaluation board from another US company that used the same device that he had seen in an advertisement inByte magazine. After the development system arrived, Jackson ripped out the chip and set about developing his own design. Although this did cost rather more than simply purchasing an individual device, the three-month lead time it gave him to develop the product was, in the end, well worth it.

Today, with the advent of the Internet, data sheets and product specifications are far easier to obtain. Unfortunately, purchasing some of these products is a less easy task. Recently, in my quest to build the ultimate sound system, I contacted Bowers and Wilkins Limited (Worthing, UK; to ask for the nearest distributor of its famous 800D speakers. After two requests via the Web site over a period of many days, I finally obtained a reply. Writing a letter would have been faster! But while it is relatively easy to purchase such consumer products, the very development of them is having a major effect on the development of products for the machine-vision and image-processing industry.

Last month, I spoke to a developer of both cameras and board-level-based products. Obtaining CCD and CMOS devices from certain semiconductor vendors, he said, was now next to impossible. “These people (the semiconductor vendors) don’t even want to talk to you unless you are prepared to purchase thousands of devices.” And, of course, the only people who are designing and manufacturing these products are those involved in consumer-based products.

This scenario is intensified by some FPGA vendors who also find it more lucrative to deal with those producing “consumer-related” products such as graphics cards for the PC add-in market. Exacerbating this situation is the “boom-and-bust” cycles of the semiconductor industry. Even in periods of growth, it may be difficult to obtain low volumes (read fewer than 1000 parts) without waiting for long periods. When consumer markets evaporate, you will still have to wait because semiconductor vendors will cut production.

Today, being a little fish in a big pond can be frustrating. Be glad if you can use what you borrow, even if it is a semiconductor vendor’s development kit. “We learn from history that man can never learn anything from history,” said George Bernard Shaw, an English philosopher.

In the electronics industry, although you can learn from history, you cannot do much about it. I said that.

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Andy Wilson
[email protected]

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