Today, embedded systems are everywhere. Although you do not usually interact much with these systems, these tiny computers are present (besides PCs or workstations) in anything electronic that seems intelligent such as mobile phones, smart card readers, set-top boxes, microwave ovens, music systems, digital cameras, TVs, MP3 players, ATMs, automobiles, traffic signals and numerous other gadgets that we come across in our everyday life. Being a unique combination of computer hardware, software and sometimes additional mechanical or other parts, embedded systems focus on one task and do it well. In other words, these sit inside your devices to add an element of smartness to them.
An embedded device is one in which the software is hidden in the hardware on which it runs.Embedded systems are usually designed to perform a specific function within a given time frame—for example, to help you choose for how long your washing machine should run, confer thinking power to the microwave oven and propel rocket launchers into space.
Let’s figure out the opportunities in embedded industry and also if a career in this field could prove to be a good take-off for you.
What’s the market like?
Spurred by increasing sales of electronics and burgeoning telecom sector, the Indian semiconductor design industry is all set to reach $10.2 billion by 2012, from $7.5 billion in 2010, says a report by the India Semiconductor Association (ISA).
The Indian chip design industry, which comprises very-large-scale integration (VLSI) design, embedded software development and board design, is expected to grow 17.3 per cent year-on-year to reach the whopping figure of $10.2 billion by 2012. This tremendous rate of growth will also require a large number of skilled professionals to increase the quality of work churned out.
The report further adds that the Indian semiconductor design industry employed a workforce of 160,000 in 2010, of which embedded software accounts for as much as 82 per cent employment. Thus highlighting the fact that embedded systems open up a plethora of opportunities for their practitioners.
India’s semiconductor consumption is projected to reach $8.2 billion in 2011, a 15.5 per cent jump from 2010 consumption of $7.1 billion, according to research firm Gartner Inc. Based on this forecast, India is the fastest growing market in terms of semiconductor consumption for 2011.
“Changing demographics, increasing consumer affluence, economic growth and favourable government policy continues to drive the electronic equipment manufacturing industry in India. Numerous global electronic equipment manufacturing companies have set up production facilities in India to take advantage of the growing domestic market, and to cater to neighbouring markets in the region. As a result, semiconductor consumption is also growing at a rapid pace,” says Ganesh Ramamoorthy, research director, Gartner.
“Given the low penetration and the growing demand for key electronic equipment such as mobile phones, desktops, laptop computers and LCD TVs, we believe the Indian market will be able to easily sustain high growth rates in the coming years. Therefore we expect India’s semiconductor consumption to grow the fastest across the globe through 2015 at a compound annual growth rate of 15.9 per cent to reach nearly $15 billion. Through 2015, nearly three-fourth of India’s semiconductor consumption will be accounted for by these three electronic equipment segments,” Ramamoorthy added.
Nearly 2000 chips are being designed in India every year, with more than 20,000 engineers getting engaged in various aspects of chip design and verification. “With India becoming the hub for semiconductor design, the embedded industry offers tremendous job opportunities countrywide. If you plan to enter into this field, you need not worry about the respective job prospects. We require tons of embedded professionals to create all that is possible—be it in telecom, networking, automotive, medical and so on,” quips Venkatesh Kumaran, country manager, Wind River India.
“With India becoming the hub for semiconductor design, the embedded industry offers tremendous job opportunities countrywide. If you plan to enter into this field, you need not worry about the respective job prospects. We require tons of embedded professionals to create all that is possible—be it in telecom, networking, automotive, medical and so on.”
— Venkatesh Kumaran, country manager, Wind River India
He also underlines the fact that the embedded sector suffers from lack of quality manpower. “There has always been a dearth of embedded professionals worldwide and in our country. One of the main reasons behind this is that our universities and engineering colleges do not put a great emphasis specifically on embedded courses/ practicals. Not many experienced professionals are available in the teaching community here who can take that as a passion and help students at large in the country,” he adds.
What role to choose?
Any embedded system is teamwork of three different sets of people including hardware engineers, software engi-neers and application domain experts. You can look for a job under any one of these broad categories. If you are comfortable in the hardware domain, you will be assigned responsibility for hardware platform and module prototyping, debugging and testing. Also, you have to ensure compliance with standards and product specifications and initiate design changes as necessary.
As a software engineer, you can start as an embedded systems programmer with responsibility of tasks like analysis and optimisation of embedded software for the targeted real-time operating system (RTOS). Your activities may include developing installable and built-in device drivers, kernel modifications and embedded application.
You can begin as a wireless protocol engineer if you seek to explore the application domain. You will be responsible for the development, integration and testing of various protocols within an embedded firmware stack used in mobile devices.
Some of the major recruiters in this sector are Texas Instruments (TI), STMicroelectronics, Intel, Freescale Semicondcutor, Honeywell, Delphi, Huawei, Tata Elxsi, Mistral, LG Electronics, Samsung, Microchip Technology, eInfochips, Serveen, ATS, Sankhya Technologies, Bluefont, Intoto, Wind River and DCM Technologies.
“In the embedded industry, the jobs exist in the early phases of product life cycle like design, verification and validation, architecture support, functional test and rapid control prototyping,” adds Solaikutty Dhanbal, manager, NI India Academics.
Marc McComb, academic program sales engineer, Microchip Technology Inc., elaborates, “As new technologies emerge, embedded systems are being integrated into more products. Therefore engineering students with knowledge related to embedded systems will find that their skills will become increasingly valuable to a number of different sectors including, but not limited to, automotive, medical, consumer electronics, aerospace, military, and much more. Also, the current trend in the industry seems to be expanding the applications that utilise embedded systems. With India’s wealth of engineering talent, I believe manufacturers will take advantage of this and continue to hire from this region.”
“The opportunities for embedded professionals exist in product-related companies, software companies which do design for product companies elsewhere and research field as well,” Kumaran informs.
“Microchip looks for certain skills on a case-by-case basis, for a particular focus. For example, some applications are more software-centric, such as our touch-sensing technologies. In this case, a priority could be placed on a candidate’s abilities to create efficient and effective firmware, while still being able to understand how their software will interact with the rest of the system.”
— Marc McComb, academic program sales engineer, Microchip Technology Inc.
He points out, “There is a need of embedded engineers across verticals in R&D, automotive, telecom infrastructure to engineer the LTE devices, base stations etc. Apart from these, embedded engineers are much in demand in the consumer space as well as in the gaming industry. Android is one of the fastest growing platforms so there is a plenty of scope for embedded engineers here too.”
Newer tools that make it easier to utilise embedded systems have definitely created new markets. Such new markets include energy harvesting, lighting, intelligent power systems, human interface such as touch-screen controllers, and many more.
How to get the entry pass?
Let’s delve a little deeper to know the basic criteria for entry. To work in this field, diploma holders, engineering (as well as science) graduates, postgraduates and even doctorates with the background of electronics/electrical engineering or computer science may try their luck here.
Now coming to entry-level recruitment, it demands some pre-defined skillsets. On the software side, it is mandatory to have the basic knowledge of ‘C’ and assembly language programming. On the other side, sound knowledge of basic electronics, especially digital and analogue design techniques, microcontrollers and microprocessors, and system knowledge related to communication protocol and real-time operating system can be helpful in gaining a strong foothold in the field.
This may be one of the fastest growing sectors of electronics, but there is a scarcity of people with knowledge of embedded system design. In fact, it is a challenge to find a fresher with a good grasp of the basic electronics and designing concepts.
What you can get?
Wondering whether this field is powerful enough to fill your pocket to a good extent? Well, it depends primarily on the nature of organisation, competency level and the academic background of the candidate.
According to Dhanbal, “The salaries are at par with IT and ITeS and in most cases slightly better. With the movement of designs to large scale deployments in the next few years, the salaries are expected to grow significantly. Today, the experienced embedded professionals are domain focused; with new approaches to embedded systems like graphical system designs, it is expected that the domain experts will have a broader perspective of embedded systems, specifically a multi-disciplinary knowledge of tools.”
As compared to the existing government or public sector players, the private sector is always ready to offer more lofty figures for candidates with suitable exposure. The ability to multi-task may be a defining factor here.
Kumaran mentions, “Though I cannot comment on the exact numbers, the embedded sector is a high-paying field offering salaries roughly twice that of engineers in the enterprise field.”
The future is embedded
Let’s see what’s in store for embedded devices in future. “Everything is going to be connected and all electronics will be pretty interoperable. Everything you touch in your home like TV, refrigerator, PC and phone is going to get connected to an extent that you will be able to remotely manage electronic devices from any location. For instance, if you want to know how much milk is left in your refrigerator, you will be able to look it up through your phone. The device will actually send you an alert when the quantity goes down and then also remind you to make a purchase order,” says Kumaran.
In the near future, Dhanbal says, “There will be a proliferation of open tools and architecture both at the hardware and software systems level. The tools will provide for programming functionality to the pin.”
McComb expects development platforms to become easier to use in order to help engage new users from non-traditional embedded markets. “This can be seen today with the increasing popularity of development tools with graphical programming environments, or very high-level programming languages with easy-to-use, expandable hardware components. Such tools have opened the embedded world to new users such as artists, hobbyists, high-school students, and more,” he elaborates.
Now that you have got enough boosters from the ‘opportunities to be grabbed’ in this field, it’s also important to understand what the embedded industry expects from an individual. As experts point out that the actual hands-on experience is indispensable, your bookish knowledge might not be adequate to catch the speed of an industry which is experiencing the great technological revolution.
“Microchip looks for certain skills on a case-by-case basis, for a particular focus. For example, some applications are more software-centric, such as our touch-sensing technologies. In this case, a priority could be placed on a candidate’s abilities to create efficient and effective firmware, while still being able to understand how their software will interact with the rest of the system,” McComb states.
He continues, “Our company has solutions for many different industries such as medical, appliance, automotive, and more. Therefore it’s hard to generalise what skills will be valued in a candidate.”
Wind River primarily recruits for the post of technical account manager. For this role, the company looks for people “who have worked in the software field for more than five years and are now looking to move to an area of field application. The job requires engineers to have deep understanding of technologies,” states Kumaran.
Presently, National Instruments (NI) does not hire people for embedded systems. However, Dhanbal informs, “When we do we will look forward to professionals with broad-based knowledge of tools.”
The fields of electronics and computer science have become more challenging and interesting in the last decade. Dr C.P. Ravikumar, technical director, university relations, Texas Instruments (TI) India, suggests, “Embedded systems have evolved as a major discipline, encompassing many technologies such as sensors, analogue, embedded processors and embedded software. At the same time, educational resources have become available at lower costs. Today, you can find free online educational content, free software tools and low-cost hardware tools. Students must take advantage of these opportunities with the help of a mentor.”
So dig out all the possibilities to get a practical exposure and make sure the fundamentals are clear. Finally, your future is in your hands.
The author is from EFY Bureau, New Delhi