Online mass customization for electronic design

Technology Update: Geppetto software from Gumstix enables the long tail of electronic devices. Users with basic computer knowledge can design every detail of a customized board, without prior framework restrictions

By Dr. W. Gordon Kruberg, Andrew Simpson July 19, 2013

Mass customization at some level has become reality in virtually every industry, from shoes to books to automobiles. In certain markets, products have become easy enough to build in custom fashion: photo albums and books, business cards, and banners have each developed the tools to let anyone design and manufacture (print) a small run of their own design at low cost. Such designs are “uniquely attractive,” meaning one individual wants the design and full production run (your holiday photo album, affordable, in glossy magazine quality).

Customers can design and order their products, often directly from the manufacturer, which produces a unique product, on-demand, and delivers it to the customer. Manufacturers like Nike (with NIKEiD) and the Ford Motor Co. can leverage existing supply chains and manufacturing capabilities to deliver a greater, though limited, number of affordable, customized products to their customers.

Tools and technologies used to create customized electronic devices are very new. Electronic devices are ubiquitous today, but the design and manufacture of a personal, custom-shaped, cellphone has been beyond the understanding of the average customer. Features and assembly of shoes or automobiles are easy to understand, but when it comes to something like an MP3 player, the embedded computer in a car, or the desktop computer, an understanding of how it works is elusive. While some superficial customization might be within reach, design from the ground up certainly has not been.

Electronic devices

The “configure to order” model pioneered by Dell is one approach to mass customization: Dell customers can configure many aspects of their computers but must work within the framework that Dell provides. Until now, this was the closest an electronics manufacturer had come to enabling mass customization of electronic devices. The potential for customization that Dell provides, however, is limited because configure-to-order isn’t design-to-order. The customer can only select from standard frameworks in choosing the model and the components used: which processor, how much memory, what size of hard disk, etc. Many aspects of system design remain beyond customer control and customization, from simple LED indicators to the number of USB ports. Aftermarket add-ons are possible, but not affordable, customized embedded computers.

Dell imposes limits with its PC Configuration Utility because the cost of designing and manufacturing a custom motherboard for even one customer would be tremendous. To accomplish this, an OEM would have to assign an electrical engineer to design the necessary circuits, have a PCB specialist to efficiently lay out the schematic, and contract a manufacturer to produce the finished product. Three months later, the OEM would have the custom motherboard ready to receive components and be shipped to the customer, with a large price tag reflecting the length of time spent on its singular design. The PCs an OEM could produce in this manner are nevertheless based on one of the best supported and standardized architectures in the world, guaranteed to work out of the box. Users of embedded computers are almost guaranteed to incur an additional layer of customization (and cost) in creating or adapting software to run their customized device hardware.

Expansion boards

Gumstix Inc., based in Silicon Valley, manufactures Linux-based computers-on-module (COMs) slightly smaller than a stick of gum. COMs, at the heart of embedded systems, use expansion boards to break the COM into standard connectors. Gumstix expansion board designs are open-source so the engineer can expand features by building on the COM framework. This enables an OEM to design a large number of embedded devices at very low cost. Providing essential computer functions on the COM eliminates the most difficult part of designing a device. With open-source hardware, users are free to build on existing designs and create conventional customized boards with the features they want.

Designing an expansion board requires knowledge of electrical engineering and embedded systems design, even with the schematics of an existing one as a guideline. After design and layout of an expansion board, manufacturing requires logistics management, especially electrical components within the supply chain. Costs are associated with each step from design to delivery. As a result, low-cost, mass customized electronic devices have remained well out of reach.

Electronic design applications

Gumstix Geppetto is an electronic design application (EDA) that allows a customer to leverage existing manufacturing capabilities to customize electronic devices built around COMs. The most difficult part of any embedded design process is creating a functional design that meets specifications. EDAs do exist that can automate some associated tasks, but users must create schematics and breadboards using their knowledge of electronics. For mass customization and manufacturing, a powerful, flexible, and intuitive design tool is needed to simplify as much of the electrical design process as possible.

Geppetto’s web application focuses on fulfillment of specifications using drag-and-drop modules representing typical electronic components and mechanical features. All low-level routing is automatically completed behind the scenes. The software will alert users to modules that have not been properly connected or that are missing other modules required to ensure proper functionality. Users with only a rudimentary knowledge of computers can design every detail of their customized device, breaking free of the prior framework restrictions.

The software removes much of the tedium associated with electronics design. The application targets electronics designers, from professionals at OEMs needing thousands of boards to hobbyists needing one or two for prototyping. Easy customization removes the final barrier to mass customization for electronic devices: Users no longer need to know exactly how a computer works at its lowest levels in order to design one.

The software also lifts the burden of supply chain management from electronics designers by leveraging existing Gumstix manufacturing. Elimination of supply chain management and manufacturing logistics does for electronics production what’s elimination of high overhead and constrained shelf space did for retail. Completed designs can arrive in approximately 3 weeks, in stark contrast to the 3-month traditional board design. Accessibility in design, rapid time to market, and affordability make the long tail of electronic devices a reality.

– Dr. W. Gordon Kruberg is president and CEO, and Andrew Simpson is content developer of Gumstix Inc. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,