Embedded Systems – Prospects & Future in India
The digital revolution now has reached to a stage where we cannot conduct our normal modern daily lives without this technology. Indeed, it is reasonable to say that everyone already owns at least one piece of equipment, which contains a processor; whether it is a phone, a television, an automatic washing machine, an MP3 player, microwave oven or anything such.
The colossal growth of processing and controlling power in small packages has fuelled this digital revolution by boon of embedded systems.
Early Developments & Now
Today these systems span across many aspects of our daily life, ranging from consumer electronics devices to medical equipments, telecom instruments, automobiles and many others. A staggering 11 billion processors were used in embedded systems during 2007 and are rising annually. Embedded systems have been touching and changing modern lives like never before.
An embedded system is a combination of computer hardware, software and additional mechanical or other technical components. Most of the embedded systems also need to meet real-time computing requirements.
2. Interact with real world directly: These systems are usually directly connected to real-world environment via various sensors and interfacing modules. Users can directly control or change their parameters as and when needed.
3. Works under tight constraints: Embedded systems have limited resources in terms of memory, processing power and peripherals to interact with other systems. Power constraints are also major such that many devices need to run using small sized batteries for many years without faltering. Besides this, the form factor (physical footprint), weight, material cost, etc. are common constraints on embedded systems.
4. Mostly built as reactive mechanism: Since embedded systems are built for specific purpose and dedicated function, they are usually built as a reactive mechanism; such that their functioning is triggered by external response or feedback.
5. Highly reliable: Many embedded systems are deployed in severely hostile environment where common machines or instruments, computers would usually fail to operate. Yet embedded systems in such conditions operate without any problems. Additionally, these systems often reside in machines that are expected to run continuously for years without errors and in some cases recover on its own if an error occurs.
Above mentioned characteristics clearly differentiate embedded systems from a general purpose computer or typical software or IT system per se.
Architecture in General
Figure 1 shows detailed block diagram of an embedded system. As shown in the figure, foundation block is various types of hardware components, esp. microcontrollers, special function ICs and various other programmable devices.
Second important layer is of hardware and board level circuit which is customized for dedicated application of the system.
The third layer is of firmware or application specific software which is burned (or programmed) into the core processor (micro-controller) on the main-board. This firmware also works as a device driver which drives various peripheral devices attached to the system; whether mechanical or electrical in nature. Real Time Operating System aka RTOS is an optional block here which is not present in all the embedded systems but only in those where the application is time critical and has many peripheral resources that are to be tightly controlled with respect to time.
All the above layers to this are high level languages and softwares which are not mandatory for embedded systems and are not always needed.
Current Trends in India
According to recently released NASSCOM report, the total addressable embedded system R&D global opportunity is expected to reach approx. $89 billion by 2015 where India alone could contribute approx. $15 billion in size.
This means that Indian technology firms and engineering designers will have to drive actual product innovation and move towards product ownership.
Presently many Indian companies provide high level software designs and board level designs in a few cases. Not much work is carried out in terms of application design engineering, hardware design and innovation towards customized product development. This lack of domain expertise in industry is basic impediment for future growth.
Leveraging and growing in these areas can help Indian industry to have significant improvement in embedded systems space and a few companies already have started working towards this goal.
However, many hardware platforms have reached their configuration potential and are saturated in terms of adding new things that cannot be added using firmware. Additionally at the advent of open source hardware platforms and quick prototyping and building blocks of hardware systems not much differentiation can be made by just the hardware system.
This means software or firmware is now a key differentiator; since any new feature or specification can be easily tackled or added using software changes.
Clearly, now the software has to play critical role of differentiation, innovation and future enhancements in embedded systems. The ratio of contribution by firmware and hardware, which was 30-70 (30% firmware & 70% hardware) earlier has now become almost 50-50 and is expected to grow further as hardware reaches its saturation in due course.
However, as far as Indian scenario is concerned, our industry still lacks expertise in main domains such as customized designs, ICs, new product designs, base level manufacturing, etc. Most of the products produced or supported in India are conceived in other countries and only get produced, supported and serviced here. This poses future threat in terms of overall healthy growth of embedded sector if not taken care of soon.
What Should You Do?
If you are an individual from engineering background – there is clear cut opportunity for becoming an embedded systems’ engineer; whether it is in the field of firmware, system integration, hardware designs or anything such. However, it must be understood that on this fast track field; industry is expecting work-ready candidates. This means, candidates should have prior knowledge of this field or should have a very steep learning curve to cope up with current trends.
For institutions; while companies are expecting industry ready candidates, institutions need to catch up with the speed by better alignment with industry standards and forming industry-institution partnerships wherever possible. Additionally, since there is greater scope for new researches, designs & innovations, most of the research work can be very well guided towards this trend, where industry can support in getting ideas into reality and on practical application level.
Looking from industry point of view, companies are aware of the opportunities as well as challenges that are posed with it. Creating a better ecosystem where each of the stakeholder and participant can perform better and achieve a common goal of growth is the key.
In order to catch up with international trends in embedded systems, industry and institutions, both have to do some work on their part.
1. Mature electronic prototyping methods and systems need to be established; so that ideas could be validated faster and products would come well in time in the market.
2. Ecosystem for electronic manufacturing; esp. low level hardware support as well as high level product development needs to be augmented. Since there is sheer lack of such an ecosystem, it not only poses challenges to industries but also to institutions in terms of futuristic research and studies.
3. Work towards innovations – not only in terms of technology but also in developing new products and uses. New generation engineers are coming up with many new and novel ideas in this field; however, lack of end-to-end support is becoming key impediment to lead those ideas towards logical and fruitful implementations.
4. Nurture industry specific and industry ready talent. While industry predictions are stating numbers that could be tripled in coming few years, lack of industry ready talent is going to be the biggest hurdle. Presently embedded system industry employs approximately 60,000 engineers across the country. This high domestic demand provides a strong argument for key stakeholders to drive the evolution of this industry.
5. To start the work towards applied research & developments is a must. Many of our institutions are involved in research in embedded systems’ domain and have quality ideas or suggestions. However, majority of the work involves only the study of existing technology or have just a theoretical / analytical outlook for the suggestion.
The important point here is, although we have heaps of ideas and suggestions coming by the way of research and developments, practical application is overlooked in most of the cases. And this perhaps is a silent impediment in growth of this sector in India.
At this gateway of the exploding market potential in embedded systems, there is a demand for intense, unbiased and thorough education for our design engineers. If embedded systems are to become a serious discipline which should contribute to the progression of the Indian economy and global demand in general, it is imperative that our proven expertise in IT software should play a crucial role in developing talent with the required skills.