tisdag 18 september 2012

Lean electronic prototyping: Prove your assumptions

Conventionally, when developing electronic devices, companies tend to focus on developing a prototype hardware as the first stage. This is a complicated and expensive strategy that consumes large quantities of energy and money in a design up-front.

A complete electronics development studio, open source only!
There are alternatives however. Today there are many open source circuit boards to choose from off the shelf, that suits almost any need for an embedded system. These boards are extremely cheap, and the tools for them are almost always open source, and thus, also free.

The maker movement and DIY (Do It Yourself) trend has brought embedded development to be a serious hobby alternative for anyone... even kids. And there isn't just toy functionality offered on these cheap hobbyist boards, it is real computer power and connectivity there, such as USB, Bluetooth, internet working, motor control. There are even circuit boards meant to be sewn into your clothes with conducting thread! All from the price of 20$ USD or so. In combination with mobile phones, cloud services and integration with other systems, these systems form a very powerful tool for innovation.

One of the most eye catching applications is off course the home 3D printers that has started to pop up in the market. For about 600$ USD, you get your own mechanical factory! The CAD-tools used for these are also often free and/or open source. With the 3D printers you can manufacture mechanical parts for your invention with very small means. This becomes a very important missing piece in the prototyping process that often tends to become the most expensive step when developing the prototype.

With the right prototyping strategy, a company can focus on developing quite advanced Minimum Viable Products that they actually can test in the hands of a real customer. This will give a much more trust worthy feedback, and will help the company to eliminate waste in the development process.

The sad truth is that the most important properties of a system are the least costly to develop. Many electronic devices are completely depending on a good the user experience, which in most cases are implemented in software. I'm not saying that the industrial design of a device is unimportant, on the contrary, but in the development of a minimum viable product, or prototype, you should focus on proving your assumptions regarding the customers needs/desires. To do this, the shortest and cheapest way is often to realize the solution in software. With the use of a lean prototyping strategy, the trade off between software functionality and industrial design can become less dramatic.

So what's the catch? ...

Well, there are off course down sides of these methods. To face the truth, the quality of the open source tools often leave a lot to wish for. Setting up a development environment based on open source CAN be done, but it takes it's fair amount of googling and experimenting to get it running. The documentation is often in a poor state, or none existing. This puts a big burden on the developers involved and the project becomes a lot more dependent on a high level of skills of the team members.

I would like to point out though, that during my time as a devloper and project manager in embedded systems projects, I cannot recall one single occasion when I have received any useful support from a company we have bought "closed source" tools from. So the increase in risk, is probably leveled out by the probability that you would actually get what you pay for, when using proprietary closed source software.

So keep it lean; focus on the customer, eliminate waste, keep the iterations short.

lördag 15 september 2012

Building the GCC tool chain for the STM32F4

So... I have to develop some applications on bare metal arm processors and need to practice a bit on a development board before I get started with the customer. The applications will be written in C, but I also want to investigate how C++ fits a project like this. The program is an audio application which eventually will use some filtering and asynchrounous USB transfer.

I have chosen an Olimex Board (STM32-E407) since it conforms to the Arduino form factor and has a processor close to the model used by my custormer. A JTAG was and a couple of development shields were ordered as well.

Before I can get started I need a toolchain to compile my applications. I could download a prebuilt toolchain from Mentor Graphics (Code Sourcery), but I wanted to see how if I could build one myself.

I have a 32 bit Ubuntu 12.04 host, and I tried to follow two other howto’s but none of them worked, so I had to mix the instructions from both. (http://www.triplespark.net/elec/pdev/arm/stm32.html, http://jeremyherbert.net/get/stm32f4_getting_started )

First install the tools needed for building the toolchain:
$sudo apt-get install flex bison libgmp3-dev libmpfr-dev libncurses5-dev libmpc-dev autoconf texinfo build-essential libftdi-dev libzip-dev

Now clone the source repository:

Note: See the update below for instructions for GDB XML support!
$git clone git://github.com/esden/summon-arm-toolchain
$cd summon-arm-toolchain

Since noone else will use my toolchain I will install the toolchain in my home directory: ~/tools/arm/arm-linaro-eabi-4.6.

Build the tool chain:
$./summon-arm-toolchain PREFIX=~/tools/arm/arm-linaro-eabi-4.6/ OOCD_EN=1 TARGET=arm-none-eabi LIBSTM32_EN=1 USE_LINARO=1 CPUS=2

When done, check the result:
$/bin/arm-none-eabi-gcc --version

It should say something like this:
arm-none-eabi-gcc (Linaro GCC 4.6-2011.10) 4.6.2 20111004 (prerelease)
Copyright (C) 2011 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software; see the source for copying conditions.  There is NO

To be able to work efficiently on the command line I create an environment setup script. With this script I can have several different toolchains for different platforms, and different automation scripts, that doesn't pollute my systems PATH environment variables and bash setup. 

Open up a text editor and create the file env.sh, looking like this:

echo "Olimex STM32-E407 Development Environment"

#Sub shell
#Export the variables to use in the development environment
export PATH=~/tools/arm/arm-linaro-eabi-4.6/bin:$PATH
export PS1="[Olimex E407] \u@\h:\w\$ "

#Start a new shell with the exported variables

Change the mode of the file:
$chmod +x env.sh

Enter your environment:

To exit the environment shell, just type exit and you’ll be back to your normal prompt.

From here I followed the last sections in http://jeremyherbert.net/get/stm32f4_getting_started to build the first test software.

Good luck!

Update Sept. 17 2012
To be able to debug the target I hade to rebuild the toolchain with XML support enabled in the GDB target.

To do this you first need to install expat:
$sudo apt-get install libexpat1 libexpat1-dev

Then find the GDB build target in the automated build script named summon-arm-toolchain and add the parameter "--with-expat \" before the GDBFLAGS parameter (or add it to the GDBFLAGS variable).

Now build the tool chain according to the instructions above.

fredag 14 september 2012

Setting up Olimex arm-usb-tiny-h with Ubuntu 12.04

Along with the Olimex E407 board, I also ordered an Olimex arm usb tiny h JTAG to be able to program the board. I am more convenient with working in Linux than other operating systems so I really wanted this to work with my Ubuntu 12.04 (32bit x86) installation.

This was a bit tricky, and it has taken some time to Google for all the bits and pieces that finally made it work.

First I downloaded libftdi 0.20 from here: http://www.intra2net.com/en/developer/libftdi/download.php
Build it with the normal series of auto tools commands:

$sudo make install

I am not sure if both are needed, but to be on the safe side I downloaded the ftd2xx driver and installed it as well. You can get it here: http://www.ftdichip.com/Drivers/D2XX.htm. Copy the libftd2xx.so.1.1.12 and libftd2xx.a to /usr/local/lib and make symlinks with the names libftd2xx.so and libftd2xx.so.1

I downloaded and compiled openOCD 0.6.0 from here http://openocd.sourceforge.net/ and build it with:

Note: See updated instruction regarding patch below!
$./configure --enable-ftdi --enable-ft2232_ftd2xx

$make install

When plugging in the arm-usb-tiny-h, you will not be granted access by default. To handle this you have to create a rule for udev:

$cd /etc/udev/rules.d

As root, create a file named 99-olimex-arm-usb-tiny-h.rule with this content:

SUBSYSTEMS=="usb", ATTRS{idVendor}=="15ba", ATTRS{idProduct}=="002a", MODE="0666"

I also removed the brltty package which might interfere with some of the ftdi drivers, but this was only a precaution. You could try running without removing it.

$sudo apt-get remove brltty

Now I run openOCD with the following command (paths relative from where I built openOCD):

$openOCD -f tcl/interfaces/ftdi/olimex-arm-usb-tiny-h.cfg -f stm32f4x.cfg

You can download the stm32f4x.cfg from Olimex web site.

Good luck!

Update Sept 17 2012
Apply the patch provided by this site: http://pastebin.com/rdFF2eZd before configuring and buildng openOCD