“Create” method: User-defined design
The “buy” approach: off-the-shelf embedded systems
Off-the-shelf platforms from high volume to high performance
High-volume embedded applications
High-performance embedded applications
Off-the-shelf tools reduce overhead and time to market
More related resources

When developing an embedded system, it can be tricky to determine which part of the system to design and which part to buy off the shelf. You can design and create an entire solution, fully customizing the end result, and optimizing costs, however, any change or oversight in design specifications can cause long and costly delays. Conversely, an off-the-shelf platform increases the cost of selling the product, and you may end up paying for a lot of features you didn’t need when you designed it. In any case, off-the-shelf systems generally offer faster validation cycles and, therefore, shorter time-to-market.

“Create” method: User-defined design
User-customized embedded designs include many techniques:

Processor for main system controller and digital signal processing
Bus interface for various components
I/O circuits for analog and digital signal acquisition, generation, and control
Software architecture to support processor hardware, device driver development, driver APIs, and actual application software
To make a well-thought-out decision to build or buy, you must have a precise estimate of how much it will cost to create a custom solution. If you simply add the cost of board components to the development time of hardware and software, you are most likely significantly underestimating the overall investment. The cost of manufacturing, maintaining inventory, and developing software for the OS, drivers, and middleware is often underestimated. At the same time, engineers and investors are always overly optimistic about their expected sales, especially in the first two or three years.

The “buy” approach: off-the-shelf embedded systems
An alternative to user custom design is to use an off-the-shelf platform that provides the infrastructure to create the subsequent parts. While you will typically spend more than the board components, you can expect to get to market faster because the vendor does a lot of the low-level design and implementation work for you. In addition, these systems have more friendly expansion paths, so they are better at solving specific problems that inevitably arise during the proof-of-concept and prototyping stages.

When embarking on a new technology, creating a prototype and making it work quickly is often an extremely important part of determining whether the product has technical and commercial value. For newer products and technologies, it is very difficult to determine market demand and future sales of the product. You can quickly prototype and develop systems using off-the-shelf tools without having to invest a lot of money up front.

Off-the-shelf platforms from high volume to high performance
National Instruments has developed tools that increase productivity and help companies and smaller teams of engineers bring their products to market faster. NI graphical system design tools, including NI LabVIEW software and reconfigurable embedded systems, combine the benefits of off-the-shelf platforms with the customization and flexibility of user hardware. National Instruments provides embedded solutions to meet high-volume deployment and high-performance application requirements.

Build or Buy: What’s the Best Choice for Your Embedded Design?
Figure 1. NI graphical system design tools, including LabVIEW and RIO embedded hardware, combine the benefits of off-the-shelf tools with the performance of custom designs

By using the online NI Graphical System Design Calculator, you can anticipate the impact of choosing NI tools for your embedded solution, especially in terms of overall system cost and time-to-market.

Figure 2. Using the online NI Graphical System Design Calculator, you can anticipate the time, productivity, and cost advantages of using the NI Graphical System Design Tool.

High-volume embedded applications
Off-the-shelf platforms are becoming more cost-effective and more economically viable for high-volume embedded applications (10s to 1,000s of sales deployed per year). The NI CompactRIO family of embedded platforms provides the performance and reliability required by industrial and embedded applications. In addition, it brings an ideal platform for the design process, prototyping measurement and control systems. Each CompactRIO system combines the functionality of an open embedded fabric with the reliability of a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) in rugged, hot-swappable industrial-grade I/O modules.

For high-volume system deployments and OEM solutions, the new, value-oriented NI cRIO-9075 and cRIO-9076 integrated CompactRIO chassis provide a very attractive option with a small footprint , lower cost, and flexible reconfigurable I/O (RIO) structure. These systems feature a real-time controller with an integrated 400 MHz processor, Spartan-6 FPGAs from Xilinx, and 4 C-Series modular I/O slots with signal modulated I/O. Using LabVIEW, you can rapidly develop flexible, modular measurement and control systems with significant time-to-market benefits.

High-performance embedded applications
Low-volume embedded applications that require superior performance are not as cost-sensitive as high-volume applications, so off-the-shelf platforms using integrated FPGAs are ideal. In most cases, these applications appear to be more valuable on flexible, high-performance off-the-shelf platforms that shorten the time between design verification and time-to-market. For high-performance embedded applications, NI FlexRIO includes modular FPGA hardware, Virtex-5 FPGAs, and customizable I/O in PXI style. The parts that the platform can offer are as follows:

Built-in infrastructure section, including PCI Express bus interface at 800 MB/s
DRAM communication
Integrate Xilinx’s CORE Generator or other third-party IP
Point-to-point data streaming can be performed between two FPGA modules in the system through DMA
These parts help a team rapidly prototype new designs while focusing on the most valuable parts they add to the system. Using PXI and NI FlexRIO, embedded designers are creating highly flexible, scalable, and custom systems for generation and acquisition applications.

Off-the-shelf tools reduce overhead and time to market
Users of graphical system design have demonstrated that they can work with smaller teams to create custom embedded systems using off-the-shelf tools. Using system-level software tools to program built-in processors, FPGAs, and hardware such as I/O, smaller teams can accomplish tasks that previously required at least twice as many people.The result is a reduction in hardware and software development costs, typically the primary expense for embedded designs

–John Hottenroth

John Hottenroth is the RIO hardware market development manager at National Instruments. He helps users reduce development time on high-performance design projects and most recently worked with the same user who used LabVIEW with NI FlexRIO to create the world’s first real-time 3D OCT medical imaging system.

– Nick Butler

Nick Butler is Product Marketing Manager for the Wireless Sensor Network Platform at National Instruments. He was recently invited to speak at the WSN and Energy Harvesting Conference in Boston and the Sensors Expo in Rosemonta.

Use an online calculator to predict the impact of NI’s graphical system design tools on your embedded system

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