Single Board Computer Total Cost of Development Considerations
Need the lowest production unit cost?
To get the lowest single board computer unit cost, you need to own your hardware design, which typically these days means getting someone else (a Contract Manufacturer) to manufacture your single board computer. This is what both the big boys like Apple and the smaller companies do. Here’s what you need:
Use in-house resources or hire an engineer/design company to do the design. This includes a Schematic, Gerbers (PCB files), Bill of Materials, working prototypes, and functional tester.
- You cannot manage a design effort if you do not know what it involves. Ideally, you have done designs before becoming a project manager. Not knowing what is involved will cause the project to be late, over budget, and not do what you expect. If you get a low quote for the complete design service, you will pay for it later.
- If you want a design you can manufacture for 5-7 years, be careful which parts are designed in. For example, the processor used in the low-cost Raspberry Pi is cheap because it is made in the tens of millions for a consumer product. That product can change at any time and the chip will go out of production.
Choosing an Asian CM to build a single board computer can put you out of business. It is possible to get an entire production run of say 5,000 single board computer units — all not working. If you have made shipment promises based on delivery dates, this kind of thing could end badly. The big boys all have management in Asia and set up in-circuit and functional testing at the CM to reduce this risk. Even so, the CM needs to have oversight to make sure the tests are performed as specified.
As an example of the kind of traps out there, let’s say you want to run embedded Linux and so you select a processor for which the manufacturer offers a Linux port. Great – all the driver work is done, right? The inconvenient truth is that for silicon vendors, software is not their strength and saying they run Linux is mainly a feature checkbox. The typical Linux they provide is a cobbled-together proof-of-concept, not a production-ready and tested platform.
If after reading these warnings and this approach sounds like a fit for you, check out these low-cost single board computer chip vendors:
- Freescale: i.mx28 SoC is low cost, can drive up to 7” display, wide variety of interfaces including CAN. Vybrid line for small displays has frame buffer on-chip.
- TI: Sitara SoC are a family of low cost processors with LCD controllers.
- Atmel: Wide range of processors with LCD controllers.
Want to use low-cost off-the-shelf hardware?
Given the complexity and risk involved in the lowest cost single board computer model previously described, you might decide to buy an off-the-shelf processor board that has an LCD touch interface. This helps you get to market quicker. However, you still have to deal with the following issues and associated risk factors.
Almost all low-cost hardware boards come with a basic Linux image, but this is rarely sufficient for production. If you want to change the Penguin logo or modify device drivers, for example to accommodate a specific LCD or touch panel, you will have to recompile the kernel.
- When looking at a company website, check their support page. If it says, “Read our blog, community support provided, or work with our Software Partners,” it means they are not going to provide direct software support.
- Programmers with Linux kernel experience are very hard to find.
- Companies that offer low-cost Linux support often require consulting fees to provide anything other than package installation (basic Root File System support).
- If something doesn’t work (real life examples: video playback stops running after an hour due to DMA buffer exhaustion; LCD display clock frequency is wrong; the version of a package you need like Qt won’t compile with the vendor-supplied version of GCC) then you can have a “software show stopper” that requires high-priced help to resolve.
Vendors selling just a hardware board do not need the same approval needed by the finished good maker. Vendors do not provide ESD and EMI test data, and if you go into the approval testing and fail, there is no Plan B.
- Ask for bare-board EMC pre-scan data.
- Understand what ESD level your final product will need to pass.
Verify that the vendor will be making this product in the 5 or 7 years your product will be in production.
Many low cost boards will have revisions made with little advance notice. These can cause problems with medical and other equipment that needs to follow strict ECO and change notification procedures.
If after reading these warnings and this route sounds like a fit for you, check out these low-cost, board-level hardware vendors:
The Reach Technology alternative: one vendor for hardware, software, and support
If you have limited engineering resources, and your competency is something other than Linux and its associated hardware, you may be happy to learn there are off-the-shelf Development Kits available. Kits start at $369 and give you a clear line of sight from development through production — one source for touch screen control hardware, software, customizations, and support.
With Reach Display Modules there is no software or hardware finger-pointing if problems appear. In providing integrated services to customers, Reach has experienced many use-cases, including embedded browsers, networking (TCP/IP) over USB, video playback, X11 server, Web server, File Sharing (Samba for Windows).
Instead of starting from scratch or configuring software and finding out it won’t compile or doesn’t work, in most cases Reach has already figured out the problems and can create and replicate in production a custom distribution that works for you. Reach can also answer the often asked question, “How does everyone else do this?”
Working with Reach Display Modules has many benefits:
- Modern Interface: High-end, state-of-the-art look.
- Proven Software: Easy to Learn High-level Integrated Development Environment (IDE). Modern, Open Source, drag-and-drop GUI design tools; Open Source graphics library.
- Proven Hardware: Full connectivity options, range of sizes, tested.
- Expert Support: Live technical support by a software engineer and user application support when you need and want it. Support materials including support site, manuals, videos, application notes, demo projects, and more.
- No Hidden Costs: No subscription fees, additional software costs, or support costs. Price breaks based on annual production volumes.
- Customizations: Custom designed display modules for low minimum quantities (as low as 500/year).
- Around for the Long Haul: 26 years in business; focus on non-consumer applications in medical and industrial applications.
- Products When You Need Them: Reach manufactures in the USA for reliable products with short, predictable lead times.
- Smooth End-of-Life Product Transitions: Proven product longevity and support with full ECO notification. Modules in production 5 – 7 years as a minimum.
- Consistent Manufacturing: Reach manages long-term exact copy. If we change one part or software code, we will let you know. This allows you to avoid unexpected operations in production (i.e. prototypes work fine, and then later you discover a problem). Get your own custom-build as long as you like.
The bottom line is that this is the lowest risk path compared to other single board computer alternatives.