Many engineers prefer not to use development environments, instead preferring to embed debug points into their code and use test equipment to validate their hardware. However, there are distinct advantages to using a development tool, and they fall roughly into three areas
- Parallel engineering
- Time to market improvements
- Known good circuitry
Parallel Engineering is probably the simplest of these. Many projects have multiple engineers working on them, and it’s great when, for example, the software engineer, is able to start testing code before system PCBs are available. This is particularly true if the target board requires complex packages such as BGA which cannot be easily bread-boarded, or perhaps the circuit requires a long lead time element such as an ASIC. Additionally, of course, it’s possible to use multiples boards to compare and contrast different products without the need to invest hugely in tools for testing. Parallel engineering saves time and resources, which means faster time to market.
Time to market is an important parameter in engineering, and can often determine the commercial success or failure of a product. So how does a development tool help with this? The answer is multiple: first, many development kits, particularly in the MCU arena, come with productivity tools as part of the package. Examples of these tools are ready written device drivers for peripherals, and/or the porting of a real time operating system for a given device. This means coding (often the major determinant in a project timescale) can be accelerated and it becomes more deterministic, so can lead to reduced chances of a product recall.
Another area that development boards can speed development is where the supplier provides circuit layout details such as Gerber files. This can be critical in analogue or high-speed systems. Access to information that can be studied, or in the final analysis, copied, can save many hours of hard labor and more importantly, multiple PCB iterations.
Finally, the known good circuit. Many of us have been in the situation where we have with all due diligence gone to the ‘final’ PCB stage and yet have encountered an intermittent bug somewhere in the system. Having a known working board can be useful in finding those often frustrating issues. An example of this is an occasional instability in a switching power supply feedback circuit caused by higher than calculated parasitic capacitance in the layout. An inspection of the evaluation board Gerber files can be extremely helpful in isolating this problem before the final stage.