It's an exciting time to be a gadget geek. From cell phones to multimedia players and HDTVs, consumer electronics (CE) devices are performing a wider range of tasks than anyone ever thought possible — all while getting smaller and easier on the wallet. Yet, there's the challenge for CE device designers. When new generations of products are introduced as often as every quarter, CE designers require a product development strategy that is flexible, fast, and low on cost.
"Design once, make many" is an approach that the highly competitive automotive industry has embraced to address market expectations. Auto manufacturers start with one chassis design and change the bodywork, engines, and trim to create four-door sedans, sporty coupes, SUVs and minivans. To further reduce development time and costs, they carry their common chassis design through multiple models and several model design refreshes.
There's no reason why this powerful strategy, carried out with programmable logic devices (PLDs), could not help the pressure-filled CE industry thrive amidst shrinking market windows. A PLD-based platform can provide CE developers a foundation for rapid, low-cost product innovation and evolution. This can give designers the ammunition they need to react in real time to customer feedback and market changes; tailor features of a basic design for different users, regions, or price points; develop differentiated features before the competition; and maintain the first-mover advantage that is so critical to CE market success. While there are alternatives, only a PLD-based strategy can give CE developers the agility to thrive in an ever-changing, sometimes difficult market environment.
Maximizing Profit in the Digital Consumer Age
While CE revenue has been rising at a rapid clip, profits have not followed suit. It's an unsettling issue for the industry, and improvement depends in part on having a cost-conscious yet agile product development process that gets products to market before the competition. Application-specific standard product (ASSP) and application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) devices are known to provide a low-cost, fixed platform for product design. But using these devices does not come without disadvantages. With ASSPs, product differentiation is difficult. Plus, ASSPs are not always available for the most current standards and logic functions. Custom ASIC development, on the other hand, can be time-intensive and costly — with nonrecurring engineering costs exceeding $500,000, year-long development cycles, and the need to await silicon re-spins for design changes. Add PLDs to the mix, however, and a new level of flexibility emerges. For example, ASICs or ASSPs can be used to deliver the basic system functionality. To quickly incorporate the latest in-demand features to a design, low-cost FPGAs or CPLDs complete the programmable platform for product development.
Figure 1: With competitive pressures and consumer expectations both at high levels, CE designers must innovate at a rapid pace in order for their businesses to thrive.
Low-cost PLDs are already being used in a variety of high-volume consumer-oriented products, from digital TVs and DVD players to handheld media players, set-top boxes, "smart home" networks, and computer peripherals. PLD flexibility serves CE product developers by letting them rapidly develop new features simply by modifying the chip's programming in their design. This enables multiple versions of the same product for different segments at introduction, gives them an option of providing new features in response to changing market demands with a minimum of additional engineering effort, and helps them to quickly deliver upgrades to existing products in the field. With a PLD-based strategy, CE product developers can continuously and cost-effectively refresh their product lines and provide differentiating capabilities. These capabilities can include video or audio enhancements, security functions, user-programmable functions, or even completely different modes of operation.
Not only can a platform-based product design strategy help CE designers achieve rapid, low-cost innovation, it can also generate intangible yet potentially lucrative benefits. By enabling product differentiation, for example, such a strategy can bring increased margins. It can help keep a brand name in front of the customer. It can also help prevent obsolescence in a product design. Finally, designing with a reusable electronic platform demonstrates the product roadmap, putting the company in a favorable light to the investment community.