Board customization as easy as 1, 2, 3 - and at a fraction of the cost

As the need for customized technologies in mil electronics marches on, Emerson’s Embedded Computing Division steps to the fore with its RapiDex board customization service – touted to cut customization costs by at least 25 percent, while slashing volume commitments by a whopping 99 percent and delivery time by at least 33 percent, the company estimates.

Imagine a military embedded electronics realm where all boards were pure COTS and no customization was needed. OK, dreaming aside, pure customization and modified COTS are just reality in defense. And customization usually means three things: snail-like development times, mandated high volumes, and skyrocketed costs to ensure that customized board meets all relevant specs. However, the Emerson Embedded Computing Division’s new-this-year RapiDex board customization service aims to shift the paradigm, requiring a fragment of the typical price tag, volume, and development time for custom wares.

Why do we need it?

Though it focuses on customizing both ruggedized and benign small form factor boards such as COM Express Compact, COM Express Basic, Mini-ITX, and MicroATX, the RapiDex process can also be used for completely custom form factors – for example, a round circuit board with holes in the middle for building torpedoes, or a long, rectangular, irregularly shaped thermostat. Or it might just be a customer wanting a custom carrier board to mix and match with another vendor’s COTS board.

“We can do [those] like falling off a log. No problem at all,” says Rod Anliker, Director of Services Marketing at Emerson’s Embedded Computing Division.

But the RapiDex service didn’t just come into being overnight. It was two years in the making prior to its official green light earlier this year. The company noticed that small form factors vendors in particular often requested board customization, but it wasn’t as profitable as it should have been – for anyone.

“We try to spin boards to meet certain customer needs ASAP, but reality is that it’s an expensive proposition because when we develop a standard board, the volume yields a return on investment. But customization involves an entire development cycle and gets very expensive,” says Anliker.

Emerson’s Embedded Computing Division – comprising Artesyn, Force Computer, Motorola, Blue Wave, and Prolog – implements RapiDex, which often cuts typical customization costs by 25 percent, while volume commitment and delivery time are typically slashed by 99 and 33 percent, respectively.

A closer look at how it works

First, the customer develops the specification. Then within two days, Emerson gives the customer a package including a quote, user manual, 3D model, data sheet, and pricing.

Then the customer pays a $75K manufacturing setup fee up-front and makes a volume commitment of 100 pieces (as compared to the typical $100K+ costs and 10K+ volume commitments). Then eight weeks later (as compared to the typical 24+ weeks), the first article board is produced. Production boards then follow another eight weeks later.

“When we certify boards for UL and FCC and so on, we do that in different countries, and that takes time – not because it’s technically difficult, but just to turn the crank on all that bureaucracy,” details Anliker. “So the first article boards aren’t necessarily fully certified to where you can ship them to an end customer. But they’re the exact same board electrically and mechanically that goes into volume production.” So production ramps up fast thereafter.

The secret sauce revealed?

Emerson (wisely) isn’t going to reveal all their secret sauce. But they did tell us this: From a RapiDex library, customers can choose “functions” such as form factor, expansion slots, processing, I/O, and specialty alternatives. Skeptics might wonder how it’s possible to just pick and choose various functions from a library and then have them all work together, without design interface standards. RapiDex has reportedly solved such stitching-it-all-together issues.

“Here’s a good analogy from a software perspective,” Anliker explains. “You can just write straight line code or you can use classes of objects, whether it’s Java or C++, and you can do it a lot faster.”

Eye on the future

While product road maps make development easier in some ways, they can make life more difficult for the product designer when they have to create low-, medium-, and high-end versions. And there are also the requests to do something-or-other in the next version (but not right now).

The RapiDex good news: Product designers can spec the board so that the same Ethernet controller on their low-end board is also on their mid-range board, to ensure that the same software works with both versions. And product designers can use the same manufacturer for all versions of the boards.

And if something changes with the board’s requirements a year or two later – such as needing more memory or wanting to implement a next-gen Intel processor – RapiDex quickly handles that. “The control factor is what’s really got people’s eyes lighting up,” remarks Anliker. “[Product designers] can then design a product line that makes it easy to do software, easy to control [the] form, fit, and function in their product,” he concludes.

Our question is: Will RapiDex eventually be suited to the nascent VITA/VSO small form factor standards (VITA 73, 74, and 75)? Time will tell. CS