Our electronics engineers work closely with staff in all our other skill bases to design truly integrated products. The breadth and depth of our experience means that we can assemble the right team with the right specialist electronics knowledge for your project.
Areas of expertise
To design successful electronics products, our team needs to keep abreast of the latest technologies and apply a wide range of skills and expertise.
Our core competencies include embedded microcontroller-based systems, analogue sensors and front ends, power supplies, telemetry, low-power and battery-powered design, handheld and wearable devices, accurate instrumentation, video displays and processing, precision motor drive, design for manufacture/test/compliance, optoelectronics and signal processing/filtering.
Networking and communications
As the desire to interconnect products grows, we have extensive experience in adding wireless and hard-wired connectivity to systems.
We have worked on small, low-power devices using protocols including 802.15.4/ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth (Classic and Smart/LE/4.x/5.x), NFC and RFID. We have also designed more complex products requiring heavier solutions like Wi-Fi, cellular networks or 433/868/914 MHz, more recently moving towards device-to-cloud solutions such as NB-IoT, LTE-M and Sigfox.
If your application requires a wired connection, we can help with USB, Ethernet and Powerline; CAN and LIN for automotive applications and industrial protocols such as PROFIBUS, Modbus, 4-20mA and RS232/422/485. We’re also accustomed to working with more specialist or bespoke communications systems for particular customer applications.
The Internet of Things
Everyone is talking about the Internet of Things, but how do you leverage real value from connecting your products?
Beyond the hype, designing connected devices that will deliver real value to your users needs a combination of expertise in sensors, low power processing, compact product design and choosing the right power source - all areas of particular strength for DCA. It's also important to work closely with the software team during the hardware design to ensure that details like security are in place, and to choose the right design for the device that fits the supporting infrastructure.
Electronics hardware design
From complex satellite communications systems, through applications requiring intrinsic safety to consumable devices, increasing numbers of products now include some form of electronics.
To incorporate electronics functionality into your new products successfully, we need to thoroughly understand the context of your application and the needs of your target users. We can then work alongside the rest of the DCA project team to develop an integrated solution that prioritises and appropriately balances the disparate, and often conflicting, product requirements.
Spending some time at the start of the project to establish the hardware architecture sets the right development framework and avoids locking in unnecessary cost and complexity.
The work required to define the right architecture may include power budget analysis; considering intrinsic safety; generating preliminary cost estimates; partitioning product functionality between mechanical, electronic and software sub-systems; early selection of major components; test planning or even performing practical feasibility studies and tests using development hardware rigs.
Selecting and implementing the right supporting hardware is a key part of achieving a good interaction experience for your user.
By working closely with our User Experience (UX) and software teams we can tailor the overall user interface system to deliver functionality, usability and desirability on the most cost effective and reliable hardware.
This is where we finalise the selection of all the individual components for the electronic circuit design, populating the building blocks previously identified in the architectural design.
We principally use Altium Designer tools for our electronic circuit design work, as well as our PCB design activities. In addition to this inherent integration efficiency, our rigorous ISO-9001 and ISO-13485 approved checking and review procedures minimise the risk of circuit design iterations, which could be lengthy and expensive.
Attention to detail in selecting the most appropriate components can also reduce bill of materials costs and generate ongoing savings in volume production and testing.
Analysis and simulation
If analysis and simulation tools are applied to the right elements of a circuit, they can save development time and accelerate the identification and avoidance of potential issues.
We identify appropriate targets and then use a combination of SPICE simulation and mathematical modelling before proceeding to prototypes. Whether we are gauging anticipated battery life or fine-tuning the response of a filter, this theoretical modelling and simulation of circuit performance contributes to the early reduction of risk and a leaner development programme.
We can review such systems jointly from a hardware and software point of view and agree with you and the relevant approvals bodies a substitution strategy. Our aim will be to minimise the code changes within the core functional elements of the system, clearly documenting these in a way avoids or minimises the need for regulatory re-submission.
Electronic circuit realisation
Designing the circuit schematic diagram is only half the story.
Having the same engineers in charge of the circuit design and its realisation leads to better products, especially when these engineers are working closely with their mechanical colleagues to create a truly integrated product design that takes account not only of circuit functionality, but how it will be produced, tested and packaged into caseworks.
In-house PCB layout means that the engineer who designed the circuit can be intimately involved in seeing it through to realisation.
As a result sensitive analogue signals are protected, signal integrity is managed on high-speed digital lines and potential EMC failures can be removed at the source.
It's rare that a PCB can be designed with no consideration for the overall product layout.
Interactions with the casework and the positioning of electromechanical components, cables and interconnections all affect the electronic design. Considering these factors before and during the PCB layout avoids physical component clashes, reduces EMC problems, addresses thermal issues, optimises product form and size and shortens development timescales. DCA's integrated product development team naturally adopts this holistic approach, with design data shared across our electronics and mechanical CAD systems.
Constructing rigs and prototypes to varying levels of fidelity at appropriate points in development cycle reduces risk.
Testing on these rigs and prototypes allows us to evaluate technology or provides evidence of the design's performance before further time and financial investment are committed to the project.
Sometimes an early demonstrator is required to evaluate a particular technology, or to validate a product concept with potential customers.
These demonstrators generally require an amount of bespoke electronics for the particular application, with development boards or off-the-shelf modules used where appropriate. DCA's electronics team is accustomed to the rapid turnaround of demonstrators, targeting the correct balance between development effort, build robustness and representative performance.
Proof of principle and proof concept prototypes
The only way to be sure of a circuit's performance is to build it - but each prototype build has a cost.
Our approach to design is to balance calculations, simulation and analysis with producing physical test rigs and prototypes at appropriate points in the development cycle. We use breadboards to appropriately reduce project risk while keeping the development timescales and budget lean, moving incrementally towards prototypes that are increasingly representative of the final design and production intent as the project progresses.
Electronics lab facilities
As component packages become smaller and more integrated, it becomes more difficult to build and modify prototypes in-house. However, sourcing these services externally can introduce delays and a lack of control to the programme.
We have well-established, long-term links with local preferred suppliers and assembly houses and have developed close co-operative ways of working and exchanging data for fast component procurement and turnaround of prototype boards. Our in-house electronics lab is fully equipped for any subsequent rework or modifications to boards to support the bring-up and debugging process.
A well-planned test programme identifies the key requirements from the relevant specifications and establishes an effective and efficient means of testing and proving the design's performance in these areas, balancing the investment in testing against risk.
More testing can always be done. Intelligently planning the tests means balancing risk against target product launch dates and development costs. Safety-critical applications usually require traceability between requirements and test results, which we can support via our quality procedures and integrity management system.
In-house electronic development testing
Most electronic development testing at DCA is performed in-house by our design engineers.
We have invested in laboratory test equipment and environments, including computer controlled environmental chambers, to minimise the need for external testing resources, avoiding potential delays, retaining flexibility and control and maintaining confidentiality. Controlling the test programme internally means that we can adapt its scale and scope to suit a particular project, or indeed a particular project stage.
Some tests, particularly those involving compliance, require external facilities and independent third party testing. These come at a cost and can introduce delays, so it's important to use them efficiently.
Where external facilities are required, such as for EMC compliance, we include testing early in the programme and support this by placing one of our engineers on-site for the duration of the testing. Undertaking the right level of pre-compliance testing on early prototypes reduces the risk of failures later in the process, when they are more costly and time-consuming to resolve. With the right expertise at the test facility, problems can often be diagnosed or even fixed in a single visit rather than just achieving a simple pass/fail result that could require subsequent re-submission and testing.
We created our ‘layer cake’ diagram to clarify the options for connected devices. We have found it a powerful tool for establishing the specification for any new IoT proposition before diving into the development work. The choices made in each layer of the diagram will be driven primarily by the device’s functionality and the environment in which it will operate. These in turn will determine the device’s complexity and hence its size, cost, power consumption and development timescale.
It may seem at first as if your desired battery life is incompatible with the product size, but a critical look at the system architecture can identify a different, lower power sensor technology or improve the use of power saving modes.
Reviewing the cost of meeting each system requirement at this stage can help define the optimum balance of cost and function for your product.
Microprocessor and radio
If your product is for a highly regulated environment, factors such as the certification of manufacturer-provided stack code become critical. We review the available microcontrollers for each application to select the most appropriate part, rather than partnering with a single preferred manufacturer.
Sensors and actuators
Clever design and innovative uses of existing parts can be the key to the successful implementation of sensors or actuators, but sometimes a customised device will need to be developed to suit the unique requirements of a particular application.
A bespoke solution will offer a lower unit cost and can be tailored to your specific needs. However, it will involve more development time and cost than integrating a bought in antenna. Printed antennas reduce product cost when they can be fitted within the board footprint, but they can suffer from signal loss if located near other components, particularly the device’s battery. Alternatively, it may be possible to carefully tune the antenna circuit to repurpose an existing metal component to act as the antenna.
Battery power or AC adaptor? Small battery for size or large battery for life? Replaceable or rechargeable? Run the system straight from the battery or use a power supply circuit? Energy harvesting? Inductive charging?
There are many decisions to make around power supply architecture, often requiring compromise between requirements to arrive at a bespoke solution. Our experience allows us to consider not only the obvious questions, but more subtle issues that can be easily overlooked. These can be vital to success, such as the necessity to minimise current draw from a rechargeable battery in the extended period between a product leaving manufacture and next being charged by the end user, in order to avoid permanent loss of battery capacity.
Electrical systems engineering
The challenge with electrical control systems is making them robust and reliable without over-engineering and introducing unnecessary complexity.
Our innovative approach combining PLCs, the right sensors and actuators, bespoke electronics where required and creative control strategies leads to systems that work reliably and allow for maintenance and future flexibility. We can help you design in suitable interfaces, from Ethernet through to lower speed serial communications or even something as simple as 4-20mA. We can provide a full solution from product design and development through to the assembly of prototypes and preparation for manufacture.
Demonstration rigs for transportation
Designing an interior for a train or aircraft can require the construction of rigs or mock-ups for evaluation.
These will only be compelling if constructed with working electrical systems. Our team is used to working pragmatically to design realistic and representative demonstrations, building in the flexibility that is required to allow rapid design iterations.
Bespoke production test rigs
Many products require some form of bespoke production test equipment, which your selected manufacturing partner may not be able to provide.
The design of custom electromechanical test rigs can vary in complexity, ranging from simple solutions based around a PLC to those requiring custom electronic hardware and software. We can offer a complete design, engineering and PLC programming service, tailoring our solution to match your manufacturing arrangements.
As products become smaller and more portable, being able to design for low power consumption is crucial. Designing a good battery powered, handheld or wearable product requires specialist electronics expertise.
Every microamp of current consumption matters, so it's important to select low-power components, turn them off when they are not in use and make sure that the current leakage is low when the device is asleep. We build a power consumption model as early as possible when designing low power systems and then iteratively refine it as the design progresses.
For portable devices, battery selection is crucial. Make the wrong choice and either your battery needs changing or re-charging too soon or your product will be unnecessarily large and heavy.
There are other factors to consider when choosing batteries such as peak current delivery, self-discharge, state of charge monitoring and form factor. At what rate will the battery be charged? Will this be done hard-wired or wirelessly? Our extensive experience in designing battery-powered products will help you navigate this potential minefield.
Sensors and actuators
Sensors and actuators are often key items in a product's power budget. Choosing when and how to drive these components, or choosing appropriate sensors when they must always be powered, can be key to maximising battery life.
We can work with other DCA skill areas to create custom designed elements to modify or enhance a standard solution, such as custom mechanical switching elements that fit within the product and consume no power until activated. Good interdisciplinary design can also trade off electrical and mechanical functionality to suit the space and power available.