Where Do Open Source Engineers Fit in the Electronics Industry

The role of Open Source in the electronics industry is broadening, paving a career path for enthusiasts. Read about the opportunities that exist for Open Source electronics engineers today and the skills that the industry looks for in potential candidates – Jalaja Ramanunni

Freeduino board It has been believed for years that a prominent part of the future of Open Source lays in embedded systems—a “rather unglamorous child of the computer world,” as Linus Torvalds states. According to Linux Adoption Trends 2012, a study released by The Linux Foundation, Linux continues to see strong gains in the enterprise market.

Arduino projects can be standalone or they can communicate with the software on running on a computer (Processing, MATLAB and MAX/MSP)

Open Source electronics is considered a promising career path today as new digital devices are invented every now and then. Soon Open Source hardware will witness the sort of technology innovation that Open Source software kicked off a decade ago.

“We have noticed an increasing demand for electronics engineers who are experienced in Open Source technologies, mainly due to the change in development towards a more social and collaborative development framework. Organisations are recognising the value of Open Source in reducing time and cost by not reinventing the wheel,” reveals Francis Kwang, APAC pre-sales manager of Acronis—an organisation that provides data backup software and disaster recovery solutions.

Open Source hardware is any hardware with its design made publicly available. It allows anyone to study, modify, distribute, and make or sell the new design or hardware. Hardware design, including schematics, bill of materials and PCB layout data, and the software that drives the hardware are all released with the Open Source approach. Ideally, Open Source hardware freely gives information about how it was created and uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and Open Source design tools to maximise the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. It gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through an open exchange of designs.

How Open Source fits into electronics

One of the main areas where Open Source plays a major role is device drivers.

“A device driver can be written either by a computer software engineer or an electronics engineer,” says Divyanshu Verma, engineering manager, Dell India R&D.

“However, a software professional often knows more about the database and algorithms than how a chip works. In this area, an electronics engineer scores over a software engineer. Those who understand ‘C’ and Assembly languages and have the basic understanding of operating systems can understand how to write a device driver,” he adds.

Electronics engineers are also required in the Open Source embedded systems domain in areas such as board design and integration programming. Microcontrollers and control programming is exclusively an electronics engineer’s domain. Data acquisition systems or control systems with real-time operating systems also require the hands of an electronics engineer. Only an electronics engineer is equipped to understand how data travels from one digital system to another. A non-programming area where electronics engineers get involved is board design.

“DSP chips is another area where electronics engineers can play a significant role, as they have an added advantage over software engineers in writing software algorithms for hardware codecs,” Verma adds.

These jobs require device driver and hardware related knowledge, and a good understanding of the system on chip. The programming language is ‘C’ and Assembly. Electronics engineers play a very important role in the development of embedded systems, network switching and handheld devices. They can take entrepreneurial path too using Open Source.

Build your Open Source skills

Open Source electronics is not a common topic found in university syllabi. Instead, most people refer to resources on the Internet. Luke Soules, the founder of ifixit.com, feels that those without hardware knowledge can easily get started with electronics and those who have not programmed before can experiment on boards with Open Source projects.

“The best example of a successful Open Source hardware project is Arduino. It is a microcontroller platform with digital input and output, and analogue input and output that lets you build things,” Soules stated in a panel discussion titled ‘The Rise of Profitable Open Source Hardware’ available online.

Arduino is an Open Source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It is intended for artists, designers, hobbyists and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. Arduino can sense the environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors and affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors and other actuators. The microcontroller on the board is programmed using the Arduino programming language based on Wiring and the Arduino development environment based on Processing. Arduino projects can be standalone or they can communicate with the software on running on a computer (Processing, MATLAB and MAX/MSP).

Vinay Chaddha, an innovator and embedded software and hardware developer, feels most colleges don’t teach Open Source electronics due to lack of awareness. In such a situation, reading electronics periodicals and blogs can help in understanding electronics.

Chaddha says, “Open Source electronics is simple, everyday electronics. The only addition is that all the information is available in public domain and there are many people working on it. So there is a large community and support is easy. Also, you do not have to start from scratch.”

He recommends that doing internships and experimenting is much more beneficial than undergoing paid training. A good way to start is exploring community projects, and working and tweaking existing device drivers that are a part of Open Source community.

“You can buy one of the boards such as Beagleboard (which costs around $100), use the supporting material that is available on the website and build your own applications. Hands-on implementation is the key to learning. We tend to look for a strong embedded systems background with good knowledge of Linux and ‘C’ as the candidates have to handle product application and development,” reveals Giri Krishna, CEO of Silvan Innovation Labs.

Krishna adds, “We work with the development boards and kits provided by vendors to develop our own applications. For example, we have used the Leopard board to develop IP surveillance cameras.”

Meanwhile, Kwang feels that Open Source does not present any barrier to entry. “One’s willingness to embrace Open Source and a keen eye for opportunities, changes and demands are the most important factors. Linux is fundamentally a great place to start. SourceForge.com is another excellent starting spot. Some of the tasks performed by an electronics engineer at Acronis are customisation, integration, and managing the interoperability of Open Source tools and codes,” he adds.

Verma recommends online self-learning. “Those who want to learn about Open Source hardware can join Openhardware.org—an initiative to Open Source hardware. It consists of physical artefacts of technology designed and offered in the same manner as free and Open Source software. A candidate can also opt for renowned certifications such as CDAC—a course that takes six to nine months to complete. However, as candidates learn the subject, they must acquire a strong understanding of hardware and its working, digital electronics fundamentals, systems domain and operating systems. The skills we look for are a good understanding of computer architecture, knowledge of ‘C’ and Assembly languages, problem-solving and debugging skills, and knowledge of microprocessors and microcontrollers. All semiconductor and real-time system development companies recruit Open Source electronics engineers,” Verma shares.

Will open hardware rival open software in popularity?

An increasing number of start-ups and entrepreneurial initiatives are opting for Linux in embedded systems for handheld devices, network switches, etc. There is a lot of focus on low-power architecture these days, where electronics engineers can play a crucial role. In software, the demand for people experienced in Open Source has increased as organisations get a deep understanding and foundation of software.

When asked whether we will see a similar trend in electronics engineers who have worked on Open Source, Verma replied, “Yes, it is very true for electrical engineers who have a very good understanding of hardware. They can be very helpful in designing real-time systems, human-machine interfaces, data acquisition systems, point-of-sale devices, etc.”

Krishna believes that some companies are trying the route of Open Source electronics to enable people to develop products, but have not reached the same level of popularity as is seen with software.

“Open Source electronics is still in a very nascent stage. The entire industry might have to wait for a few more years before it becomes a significant movement that leads to job creation in large numbers. One example I have closely observed is Texas Instruments which has deployed low-cost development boards based on its OMAP and Da Vinci product lines. They have also provided development kits with the boards to enable easy application development,” he adds.

Recommended Reading

  • Embedded Linux Primer: A Practical Real-World Approach’ by Christopher Hallinan
  • Embedded Linux System Design and Development’ by P. Raghavan, Amol Lad, Sriram Neelakandan
  • Building Embedded Linux Systems’ by Karim Yaghmour
  • Linux for Embedded and Real-Time Applications, Second Edition’ by Doug Abbott
  • Embedded Linux: Hardware, Software, and Interfacing’ by Dr Craig Hollabaugh
  • Embedded Linux’ by John Lombardo
  • The Linux TCP/IP Stack: Networking for Embedded Systems’ by Thomas Herbert
  • Hacking the TiVo’ by William von Hagen
  • Practical Linux Programming: Device Drivers, Embedded systems, and the Internet’ by Ashfaq A. Khan

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