Hardware-as-a-Service Takes on New Utility in an Era of Remote PCB Design

December 14, 2021 by Jake Hertz

As the world embraces remote and hybrid work, design for hardware finds itself at a crossroads.

While many fields have embraced the concept of remote work, hardware design remains one industry where working entirely from home seems impossible. Engineers can design remotely, but prototyping, testing, and system integration require in-person work. 


Landscape of remote engineering services

In 2020, many design engineers were forced to leave the lab amidst COVID-19-related shutdowns. As a result, the landscape of remote engineering services has expanded. Image used courtesy of MIKROE

To bridge the gap between expensive lab-confined equipment and at-home work requirements, Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS) has found a new and important niche in the industry. The "as-a-service" model is no new concept. This business model gives users access to a product (the most popular being software—as in Software-as-a-Service (Saas)) on a subscription level. When this model is applied to hardware, however, it's often described as a type of timeshare in which a company allows customers to use resources or a product for a price. 

In this article, we’ll talk about a few recent HaaS projects and how they indicate a shift in the future of remote work for hardware engineers. 


Planet Debug Live Streams Dev Boards

The most recent HaaS announcement comes from MikroElektronika (MIKROE) with its Planet Debug.

The challenge that Planet Debug is attempting to solve is simple: working with hardware is limited because you need to physically have the hardware with you. Planet Debug removes this constraint by allowing embedded engineers to program and debug boards remotely.


A Planet Debug rack, showing development boards and cameras

A Planet Debug rack, showing development boards and cameras. Image used courtesy of MIKROE

At a Planet Debug location, MIKROE hosts large racks of development boards for all the major processor types that a firmware engineer might encounter (STM32, PIC32, etc). Each individual development board has a live streaming camera pointed at it, giving the remote engineer the ability to see the hardware in real-time without needing to physically have the product. The engineer pays a daily fee (at the time of writing, $4) and can then access the development board remotely, flashing and debugging code entirely from home. 

It should be noted that Planet Debug is limited to testing and development for the processor type only, and not unique PCBs. Still, MIKROE claims this program can allow professional engineers or hobbyists to work outside of a lab by providing visualization for the exact hardware they might need.


Bild Enables Asynchronous Design Reviews

Another company supporting remote PCB design is Bild, an online service that allows engineers to review, manage, and organize iterations of hardware. 

A professional-facing tool, Bild can be viewed as a Google-Docs type service, where engineers can upload designs and receive feedback through interactive notes on their files. Offering features like web-based file viewers, visual diffs, and project-based versioning, Bild aims to enable asynchronous design reviews for hardware with the goal of saving time and enabling remote work. 


Example review flow for a PCB

Example review flow for a PCB. Image used courtesy of Bild

Bild claims its real value proposition is its version control feature. By offering a clear and centralized platform for design review, tracking, and iteration, Bild hopes to streamline the hardware design process—which is otherwise rife with emails, review docs, and an inherent lack of cohesion. 


EdgeQ Unveils 5G Chipset-as-a-Service 

The final HaaS venture to be covered is EdgeQ and its so-called industry first 5G Chipset-as-a-Service model

According to EdgeQ, as 5G permeates more and more industries, the traditional approach of selling a single-priced, highly functional piece of 5G hardware is no longer feasible. Instead, customers need the ability to scale 5G and AI functionality both up and down depending on a specific use case.  


EdgeQ combines its SoC with a pay-as-you-use 5G subscription model

EdgeQ combines its SoC with a pay-as-you-use 5G subscription model. Image used courtesy of EdgeQ

To achieve this, EdgeQ has unveiled what it says is the industry’s first service (subscription) oriented model, where the customer purchases access to a 5G chipset, which offers anything from basic to advanced 5G functions.

EdgeQ's service leverages its 5G base station on a chip. It also uses an Open Radio Access network (O-RAN) to further extend the flexibility and scalability of its platform. The goal of this model is to give customers a future-proof platform in a more affordable and convenient way. 


In 2021, the HaaS Model Takes on New Meaning for EEs

As remote work becomes the new norm, hardware engineers are going to need new ways to work, collaborate, and design systems—without access to physical hardware.

Most engineers can't afford to buy all the testing, prototyping, and development tools to bring a product to market. This is especially true for those working on prototypes in their garage to get a startup up and running. In this case, the HaaS model provides access to otherwise expensive boards, chips, simulators, and collaborative software. 

HaaS has the added benefit of update responsiveness and knowledgeable operators on standby. As MIKROE, Bild, and EdgeQ demonstrate, the HaaS model has taken on new utility in a post-pandemic world in which at-home design work has become more common, even among professional electrical engineers. 


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