Binu Raj S, associate vice-president, Dexcel Electronics Designs Pvt Ltd

JULY 2012: Could you start by giving us an overview of Dexcel Designs (DD)?
DD was founded in the year 2000. So we’ve been around for 13 years. In the beginning, we focused solely on Embedded System. We are mainly a design services company employing about 100 people in Bengaluru. We have a very good talented pool of team with various expertise like Board (PCB) circuit design, PCB CAD deign, FPGA Design, Firmware and Software design, Mechanical design and also Assembly of components. We do have a training division, which concentrates mainly on corporate level trainings. In short, when a customer approaches us for a job, we are prepared to offer solutions at all the levels. Hence, you can call us an end-to-end design service providing company.

Would it be possible to name some of your projects/technologies?
We mainly work in the defence technology market. We are very close to the DRDO and other major defence labs. We have executed works that can fit almost half a room to very thin electronics that goes between the SIM Card and the SIM connector of the mobile. We do have a few products of our own, which are listed on our website. Data acquisition systems and IP encryptions are a couple of them.

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What purpose was the wire for?
The major purpose is for Near Field Communication enabling on mobile phones. It can also be used for several other related applications.

You talked about a project that was half the size of a room? Could you tell us why it was this huge? What was the biggest challenge faced while designing it?
The project was a defense system, and the size was because of the several independent units which were required to be integrated in multiple racks. Moreover, the unit was supposed to be rugged because it was meant to be deployed in harsh weather conditions and hence, had to undergo extreme qualification tests like JSS5555( STARS V International Environmental Tests).

The qualification process for each of the units and the integrated unit itself was quite stringent. There were multiple parties (PSUs) involved with which the system was supposed to work seamlessly. Challenge was there to ensure that all parties converge on single design and yet work independently and smoothly.

The design itself had to qualify for various environmental and EMI/ EMC specs. We took the route of getting the product pre-qualified for design and then take for final qualification.

The mechanical enclosure for the whole system was very rugged and complex. I would say the mechanical design had almost similar complexity as the other areas.

What are the major verticals that DD offers services in?
The major verticals that DD has are Embedded Engineering, Training & Consultancy, CAD Services and Manufacturing.

Under Embedded Vertical we have a hardware division, comprising board-level and FPGA design engineers. We have great expertise in handling high speed boards and have also worked on most of the leading FPGAs.

The Training and Consultancy Wing concentrates on co-operate training in the embedded field like various levels of FPGA Training, Embedded System Hardware Design Training and Embedded Software Training. The plus point that we have is that the training is provided by Engineers with significant hands on-experience. This group also provides specialised talented resources to other organisations.

The CAD Services and Manufacturing wing does the PCB/CAD activities and also small volume manufacturing.

Keeping in mind DDs vast experience in handling high speed boards and FPGAs, could you elaborate on the most exciting challenge that cropped up for each of these?
For any embedded platform, we do complete board level designs (Hardware) and the associated Firmware / Software. A mistake that creeps into the hardware is more dangerous compared to the one which shows up in the software. A software error redressal is generally possible with a new release version (which comes out within a short period). But in case of hardware, it takes longer and is costlier as it has to go through a board re-design and fabrication phase again.

Mainly in the case of high speed board design, some of the areas which requires very careful handling are best placement, length matching of the traces, impedance matching etc. We do have a strong design team with very good experience in handling most of the high speed interfaces.

As we may have to work with the latest devices, we have come across challenges in bringing up some of the interfaces, which the manufacturer would not have tested completely. We have come across situations where some of the reports that we sent made them re-test those interface enabling them to update their documentation or release an errata. Our partnership with most of the silicon vendors, has given us phenomenal advantage in terms of very fast response time and greater reach to their technical team.

Could you elaborate on the design requirements of a high reliable PCB?
A normal PCB could be designed based on the common thumb rule. But in case of a high reliable PCB, we have to consider lot of factors like signal integrity aspects, thermal designs, design for manufacturability and assembly etc. In some cases we may have to even choose the PCB material based on the performance required. We have used Rogers material instead of the commonly used FR4, for a very high speed and critical board.

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Could you elaborate on the testing done on products manufactured, and how you optimise test automation for them?
Testing happens at various levels of the project phase. The board testing happens phase wise by populating components in piecemeal and testing individual functionalities. We build all kinds of test cases, covering all the conditions that we can envisage on the prototypes manufactured.

Subsequently, in cases of a production setup, we generally go for an automated process where a Testing JIG will be doing the testing of multiple boards at a time or in a sequential manner, with very minimal manual intervention. Automated testing helps us not only in saving time, but also proper logging and eliminates any human error.

I’m curious about the working of your consultancy wing. Do you train people and then outsource them?
Well, not exactly. We work like an outsourcing consultancy. Companies ask for people with certain domain expertise. We may have those people in-house or we recruit them and then assign them to the respective companies. The beauty of it is that since we are also in the same field, we have the luxury of holding them back in case the client doesn’t want them. We can also recruit extra people and keep them on the bench for future projects.

Is Bengaluru your only centre?
Our HQ is at Bengaluru. We have marketing centres at other places but all our R&D/design activities are centred in Bangalore.

What is your R&D team working on right now?
Currently, we have a couple of projects in the Data Acquisition platform and a few more in the Network Encryption area and some in thin mobile electronics (like the one I mentioned being few microns thick). There are a couple of industrial control system works also running currently. We are also working on a LED based Wall display for a client.

Could you elaborate on the evolutionary changes taking place in Industrial Control systems.
Generally, a trend we have seen is that the life of an industrial control system is much more than the life span of the major components that are being supported by its manufacturers. Obsoleteness has made many of our customers prefer FPGA over processor-based designs. Now a days, most of the FPGA vendors also support processor core within the FPGA. We have done many designs with processor core within the FPGA. Integrating too many logic devices onto a single device has also influenced their decision to prefer FPGA over individual parts.

With the smart phones and tablets being popular, some of our customers have shown marked interest in having the human machine interface on their smart phone / tablet, so that they can have the control and status check from wherever they are with the convenience of the touch screen gadget.

Are all of these client projects?
These are all projects awarded by our clients.

We do have a few products as well. In the field of Data Acquisition, we have a portable data acquisition system with a battery backup of 4-5 hours. It has a built-in capacity of 1 TB. Any application where data is continuously streamed, for e.g. GPS apps, where the system has to capture the data in real time. All you have to do is connect the GPS device to the portable data acquisition system and you will be receiving/storing the data continuously on the device. You can playback the data at your continence and analyse the same in your LAB. We also have an IP Encryption product that can be used for secure LAN data transfers.

Is this portable Data Acquisition System a completely DD product?
Yes, it was completely built by us and not for a specific client. We have sold these products to a few customers across the globe. In some cases, minor tweaking is required like matching the I/O requirement (digital or analog input) or form factor and so on.

On the topic of customisation, what kind of customisations do you introduce for products made for the Indian market?
This is something which depends entirely on the end customer. We deliver what they want; they come up with the specs and we design the product based on the specs. On the products that I mentioned, we have received customisation requests for the form factor, increase in memory depth, change in the number of I/Os supported among others.

So can you give us an example of certain specific customisations?
The main difference, as of now, is related to the certification. In Europe and the U.S, the certification norms are very stringent and take into account various parameters. In India, it’s not as stringent. The Indian Navy, on the other hand, uses a very different set of rules for certification. So depending on the customer, we have to conduct the customisations. Sometimes the certification is done by the end customer, so then what we do is make sure our design QUALIFIES their test.

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Obviously you have quite the impressive (not to mention, vast) portfolio. So does DD handle all its operations in-house?
Almost everything. The only area we outsource is board fabrication. Since it’s a very expensive and specialised setup, we usually outsource it to a few qualified vendors. We might also outsource certain specialised complex assemblies like BGA (Ball Grid Array) and special package assemblies. But otherwise we have a very skilled assembly team in-house and they can take care of most of our needs. As long as the production is less than 100-250, we can handle it in our assembly itself. If the quantity of production is above that, we generally outsource the assembly part and do the testing section in-house.

There are industry talks about using android on non-smartphone platforms like Industry Automation. Your thoughts?
Interestingly enough, we recently completed an android based Data Acquisition system right here. It has worked quite well for us. It has made the GUI very user friendly (the touch screen greatly improves the feel factor and subsequently, the user interactivity). We proposed this idea to our customers who were ok with it. So we went ahead and did it.

What challenges did you face while porting Android into your system?
Android, as you know, is mainly targeted at smart phones with high processing power and memory. Naturally, the processor vendors support only a small set of peripherals that are commonly used in the mobile industry. Coming to an embedded platform where resources are scarce and processing power limited, there could be a lot more peripheral components than the ones commonly used for handhelds. Generally handheld applications may not be very time critical. However timing criticality in embedded platform could be really crucial.

Supporting these vast set of peripherals (most of which weren’t common), was a challenge that we faced, when we used Android for the industrial environment. Our team could overcome these issues themselves and that’s how we have been able to successfully develop Android-based systems for industrial applications.

Which vertical do you see acquiring great demand in the future?
The consumers are now drifting considerably into Power Savvy designs. Semiconductor devices are being manufactured with better technologies every single day. With the reduction in micron thickness and the vast choices available now, we are able to meet the need. Some customers are even willing to redesign their entire legacy systems with the latest low power devices. That is definitely one area in which I expect to see great demand. Also, I think remote web based control will become very popular as well. The concept of getting to control something from distance is very captivating. LAN compatibility is becoming an industry default and we expect remote access to become the norm of the future.

So do your designs have LAN integration in them?
Most of our new designs have the LAN connectivity feature built in them. They also have remote accessing capabilities. So the engineers and technicians can log in from distance and do the configuration and get the status information.

Is remote access used only for access to movement restrictive areas?
Not exactly. Take an Intelligent Power Distribution unit for e.g. It is just like an extension box but with readings for all the major power parameters like voltage, current, power factor, power taken by load and so on.Take the case of a typical data center where there are lots of equipments and consequently lots of data movement. Monitoring the power and controlling it remotely becomes so easy with this feature. Regarding the data lines as well, we have made a unit, which helps the user know if someone has removed any data cable from a data centre. Providing this feature has not only made the system secure but has enabled easier debugging and troubleshooting of troubles. There are certain areas where it doesn’t make sense for humans to take all the readings manually. In such situations, all the technician has to do is log on and get the readings from the unit directly. He can then goes on and adjust the parameters as is necessary to keep the system working good.

What are the marketing strategies you employ to get more orders and new clients?
DD has been in this field for 12 years. We have a very good business development team. We have built up a host of key accounts. Our main stream of work comes as a repeat order from the clients based on the way we executed the initial order. Some of the work has come through their references. We have always focussed on providing great customer support (specifically after sales support). Also, we are alliance partners with most of the semiconductor vendors. They give us certain leads which help us get orders as well.

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What about your fresher recruitment policy?
Yes we do, we have regular (every quarter) recruitment of fresh talent.

Do you aim mainly for IIT/NIT grads?
Well, we do look for IIT/NIT grads but we have never concentrated solely on them. We have identified a few colleges for this purpose along with a few embedded training divisions. The advantage with the latter is that they have already undergone a little bit of training so they can get to work quickly.

What about in-house training for people without much knowledge of hands on work?
Well, like I mentioned before, our training division is one of our verticals, so that can double up as a training institute for the untrained. We generally do not go for 3rd party training. We assign a mentor here itself who will train the inductee thoroughly in the field taking him through different levels of work. Every person has a particular field that he is interested in. It could be FPGA, board design, firmware, driver development or application software. So based on their leanings, we assign a particular mentor to him and we let then grow and foster in that field. Earlier, an electronics engineer used to do everything. Today is the age of specialisation. We encourage specialised training of the individual but also make sure he gets a basic overview of all the jobs involved (so he gets an idea of what happens at each level of the job). Our system ensures that when a person succeeds in reaching the managerial position, he/she always understands the effort and nature of the work in all areas.

Any particular skillsets that interest you?
For me at least, attitude is the most important skillset. Someone who is ready to learn or is eager to learn can be moulded accordingly. To be honest, communication skill, though it’s a great skill to possess, isn’t an “Essential” Skillset at the fresher level. And of course his basics should be clear (which is something I guess everyone knows)

How do you think the IDH scene will be in the next 5-10 years?
Now days, the market is such that everything is price sensitive and depends on speed of delivery. The client wants quicker designs. They couldn’t care less about the complexity of the solution. The average product cycle for any electronic good is around 6 months but a week ago, a customer wanted us to complete the product in 2 months. The thing is there are companies who can get it done in a short time. So in a way, the design business has become like a fast food chain. We are expected to be prepared with the commonly used designs and with a little modification. Also like I said, the low power consuming devices are expected to dominate the market in the foreseeable future.

How do you stay on top of your competition in this day and age?
There are a lot of independent design houses operating now. Every Company has its strengths. Hence, we cannot afford to miss our delivery dates or make mistakes in estimation or expect to get away with shoddy after sales service. Also we have to be on top of the latest devices and technologies. We aim to be the optimum solution providers for our customers. Since the market is full of options, the customer will likely stick to a group which he knows will serve their interests the best.

So what would you say is the USP of DD?
One thing would be the fact that we have an excellent tie-up with most of the silicon vendors. Thus we get early access to their devices. We can design for the future. For e.g., the vendors may be releasing a device 3-4 months down the line but we can start designing products based on THAT device because we have an early access program partnership with them. They share the device details with us so if they are launching the device in January (say), we would be ready with a board which uses the device by January. Thus it becomes a simple matter of plug and play and then rolling out the product quickly. Another thing is how good our customer relations are. We have received many repeat orders just because of the good relation and support we have provided to them

What do you think about the Indian design house scenario vs. the design houses abroad?
Take China, their basic advantage is how they can roll out a product at very cheap prices (labour is cheap; facilities are close by, lot of R&D). But there are major players who are insisting on quality. We have had several cases where clients, who were interacting with Chinese design houses, approached us because they wanted better quality, high durability, and strong after-sales support. If you ignore the cost criterion, then we are at par with many of the leaders in the semiconductor world.