Reader Question: How Do You Use Modules and Modular Design?November 02, 2019 by Kate Smith
Are modules a convenient timesaver? Or a harbinger of changes to how modern engineers design?
The term module comes up a lot around these parts. We want to know how you, the engineers, use modules and think about them in your day-to-day (if you do at all).
Let's start with a foundational but surprisingly complicated question:
What Is a Module? An Attempt at a Definition
In electrical engineering (and perhaps in other disciplines, as well), the term "module" can be frustratingly vague. Perhaps this is inherent to the term because putting one's finger on a solid definition can be difficult when the word can be used in reference to so many concepts at such drastically different levels of design.
For example, a module for a circuit designer may look either like a component or a daughterboard. For another designer, a module may, in fact, be a large PCB.
The Micron MT16KTF_64AZ DDR3L SDRAM unbuffered dual in-line memory module (UDIMM). Image used courtesy of Micron via Digi-Key
The u-blox BMD-3 Bluetooth module. Image used courtesy of u-blox
Here at AAC, Director of Engineering Robert Keim offers the following: "[A module is] a highly integrated electronic component or circuit board that allows an engineer to achieve complex analog or mixed-signal functionality by means of a simplified communication interface instead of custom circuit design."
Essentially, where a module is employed, the act of creating circuits is entrusted to a third party that then provides a pre-made hardware solution to the EE to integrate into a larger design.
The Trend of Modular Design
Modules are becoming more popular. Part of this equation is the use of modules by the maker community. While there is overlap between EEs and makers, many self-identified makers don't have the formal training needed to design custom circuits. This makes modules a convenient way for them to utilize various components with ease that would have been impossible in decades past.
Electrical engineering is a different story, but modules are also becoming more prevalent in this space, as well. From RF modules to sensor modules to display modules, there are plenty of products from familiar industry companies that embrace modular design as a core consideration.
A notable example came in February, when muRata, Cypress, and NXP joined forces to provide modules that worked for EEs "out of the box" for "mix and match" IoT applications. The companies' joint public statements highlighted the ability of such a platform to use simplicity and scalability to help engineers streamline the design process.
Abstraction Away from Design or Outsourced Expertise?
From a purely logistical standpoint, the use of modules by EEs may equate to less time spent on granular design. Plug-and-play or drop-in solutions can represent a faster time-to-market, a pain point for a large number of modern engineers.
On the other hand, modules cannot offer the exact same benefits as custom design. Where a skilled circuit designer could develop a custom solution that suits all specs of their application, a module may only generally satisfy them. In this way, modules may result in unneeded functionalities, excess power costs, larger-than-needed footprints, etc.
Since engineering is all about tradeoffs, this may become a matter of deciding which portion of the design process is the most crucial for a given project—fast design or strict adherence to specifications.
Sometimes, modules are inarguably attractive. After all, given how many engineers refer to RF design as "black magic, an RF module may be a welcome addition to the average EE's tool chest. The alternative could be either outsourcing an RF circuit's design to an expert or making the attempt, oneself.
Three examples Image used courtesy of Smithderek2000 [CC BY-SA 3.0]
From a business perspective, it may make sense to remove some of the circuit design complexity from the product development process. This could free up time for EEs to either scale up the number of projects they can work on or perhaps allow them to take on higher-level tasks.
Depending on who you ask, this may be an exciting evolution in the responsibilities of the average EE or a lamentable move away from the artistry of circuit design in favor of respecting tight deadlines and budgets.
Over to You
We want to hear from you. How do you define the term "module"? How have your experiences with designing custom circuits compared to designing with modules?
Or, if you like:
What is your relationship with modules?
Do you welcome them as a means of more easily and more quickly designing high-performance circuits, or are they displacing skills and activities that are—or at least used to be—essential and rewarding aspects of an electrical engineer's work?
Please share your thoughts with the community on the matter in the comments below.