What is a Phase 0 Project for embedded systems development?

New embedded systems often begin as an idea, concept or sketch.  A Phase 0 project converts the core product ideas into detailed specs that can then be fully designed and implemented. During a Phase 0 project, we collaborate with clients on the features, functions and interfaces of a new embedded system (embedded software, FPGA, electronics, mechanical),  generating a well-defined set of requirements. We then create potential system design architecture options and carefully evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each one. Finally, we work with the client to select a final architecture and update the specifications to reflect the chosen design implementation approach.

Phase 0 projects reduce risk & build confidence

Engineers are problem solvers – we enjoy brainstorming creative solutions to challenging problems. Defining the problem and evaluating the ways to solve it are just as important as the solution’s actual implementation.

Phase 0 Projects provide the structure and budget to define the problem and evaluate potential solutions before diving into the detailed design implementation.

A typical Phase 0 project includes these steps:

  1. Understand and Characterize the Problem
  2. Capture and refine the Requirements
  3. Create System Architecture Concepts
  4. Perform Trade-Offs Analysis and Final Selection
  5. Estimate the Detailed Design Phase effort (schedule and budget)

Understand the Problem

It’s critical that key stakeholders have a shared understanding of the exact nature and characteristics of the problem being addressed. This usually requires ~1-3 collaborative meetings where the following topics are discussed in detail:

  • Key functional specifications with areas of high risk identified
  • End-user and use case storyboarding
  • Required certifications (e.g. UL, FCC, CE)
  • Anticipated annual production volume
  • Product development schedule goals

Requirements Capture

Capture a set of requirements that defines what a new embedded product or software application shall do. It’s important to “think big” during this critical phase and capture even those features and functions that are considered less essential. Else, a design will likely be implemented that may not have sufficient capacity to grow and evolve along with your understanding and positioning of your products within a dynamic marketplace.

Architecture Definition

At its core, this step is all about identifying the appropriate subject matter experts (software developers, FPGA programmers, circuit board designers, mechanical engineers) and setting them loose to brainstorm and sketch out architectural options.

For each option they will define:

  1. the key functional components of the system,
  2. the interfaces between these components.

Trade-Off Analyses

Trade studies are performed to evaluate and select the key architectural and design approaches. It’s not uncommon for the final choice to be a hybrid of the initial options. Common tradeoffs include:

  • Electronics packaging options – PCBA form factors and interfaces
  • OS choice – Bare metal vs. RTOS vs. embedded Linux
  • For embedded devices, MCU / DSP / FPGA / SOC / SOM alternatives across families or vendors
  • For connected devices, wireless options and their cost/speed/power trade-offs: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, BLE, 802.15.4, LoRa, etc.
  • For high performance applications, consider CPU vs. GPU compute, hardware acceleration, and data transfer approaches

Project Estimation

The system requirements and architecture specifications serve as a solid foundation for developing accurate cost and schedule estimates for the succeeding phases of the development project, e.g., detailed design, design verification and refinement, pre-production, etc. The detailed design phase estimate will often include:

  • Board level electronics design including schematic capture and circuit simulation
  • FPGA design and verification
  • Circuit board layout
  • Electro-mechanical design and integration
  • Firmware and software development
  • Quick-turn prototyping coordination
  • Test and verification of the fully integrated embedded system prototype

Phase 0 Project Cost

If you’re exploring a new embedded design but aren’t sure where to start, a Phase 0 project can be an inexpensive option that provides great value: definition and documentation that can be a key factor for project success.

Want to see roughly how much a phase 0 project typically costs?

Check out our pricing page.

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