Q. How are the industrial control systems evolving?
A. Generally, we have seen that the life of an industrial control system is much longer than the lifespan of the major components that are being used by its manufacturers. Obsolescence has made many of our customers prefer FPGA over processor-based designs. Nowadays, 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 to individual parts.
Some of our customers have shown interest in incorporating the human-machine interface on their smartphone or tablet, so that they can control and check the status from anywhere with the convenience of a touchscreen gadget.
Q. There are talks about the use of Android on non-smartphone platforms like industry automation. Your thoughts?
A. We recently completed an Android-based data acquisition system right here. It has worked quite well for us. It has made the graphical user interface very user-friendly. The touchscreen greatly improves the feel factor and subsequently the user interactivity. We proposed this idea to our customers, who were okay with it. So we went ahead and implemented it.
Q. What challenges did you face while porting Android into your system?
A. Android, as you know, is targeted at smartphones 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 in embedded platform could be really crucial.
Supporting this vast set of peripherals (most of which weren’t common) was a challenge that we faced when using Android for the industrial environment. Our team was able to overcome these issues itself and that’s how we have successfully developed Android-based systems for industrial applications.
Q. Which vertical do you see acquiring great demand in the future?
A. The consumers are now drifting considerably into power-savvy designs. Semiconductor devices are being manufactured with better technologies every 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. Moreover, remote Web-based control will become popular. The concept of controlling something from a distance is very captivating. LAN compatibility is becoming an industry-default and we expect remote access to become the norm in the future.
Q. So do your designs have LAN integrated in them?
A. Most of our new designs have LAN connectivity built into them. They also have remote access capabilities. So the engineers and technicians can log in from a distance, do the configuration and get the status information.
Q. Is remote access used only for restricted movement areas?
A. Not exactly. Take an intelligent power distribution unit for example. 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. In a typical data centre where there are lots of equipment and consequently lots of data movement, monitoring the power and controlling it remotely becomes very easy with this feature.
We have also made a unit that helps the user know whether someone has removed any data cable from the data centre. This feature has not only made the system secure but also enabled easier debugging and troubleshooting.
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 go on and adjust the parameters as is necessary to keep the system working in good condition.
Q. What would be the Indian design house scenario in the next five to ten years?
A. Nowadays, the market is such that everything is price-sensitive and depends on the speed of delivery. Clients want designs fast. At the same time, they can’t care less about the complexity of the solution either.