A survey of design engineers conducted by portable memory specialist Nexus GB, the UK and Ireland distributor for Datakey Electronics, has shown that industry is overwhelmed by problems resulting from the use of consumer memory in specialist and industrial applications. Furthermore, Nexus believes that, if practices don’t improve, these problems will only get worse as time passes. Here Victoria Barrett, the company’s PR and marketing director, discusses the issues raised by the recent survey and offers advice on how to avoid them.
Nexus surveyed just under a hundred design engineers all of whom were working in a senior role in UK organisations. The participants were asked a series of non-leading multiple choice questions and the possible answers were displayed in random order with hundreds of potential combinations on each page.
A staggering 70% of respondents to our survey claim to have experienced problems due to one or more of three leading factors identified in the survey; obsolescence, lack of compatibility between products from different manufacturers and loss of data due to unreliable connectors. Independently, each of these leading factors affected 20-30% of those who took part in the study. Furthermore, these complications are all more likely to take effect the longer a product has been in circulation. As a result, Nexus believes that persistent inappropriate use of consumer style memory products in industry could create a legacy of technical challenges for forthcoming generations of design engineers to face.
Its very bad news if one of these affects your company’s product when it’s launched or within a couple of years of it being in production. However, things can get much worse if it comes into play further down the line when you might find that a complete re-design is required. This could be due to a combination of obsolescence with another factor such as changes in memory standards.
Rectifying the issue can become really expensive at this stage. It’s far cheaper to start with a memory product, like the one Nexus provides, in the first instance. Choosing a product which is fit for purpose could spare you the cost of re-design at a later phase during the project.
The first thing to look for is memory that is guaranteed to work in your bespoke device. Although consumer memory may physically fit your application, it may not work for any one of a number of technical reasons. This takes away the most compelling reason to use consumer memory – its widespread availability.
Unsurprisingly, when asked whether they have experienced problems with the low mated lifecycle of consumer memory products and their associated connectors, a sizeable portion of respondents indicated ‘cost and down time’ were the most frequent issues. The second most common answer illustrates the price of human error: there have been cases when CF cards were inserted the wrong way up which resulted in bent pins in the connector. Replacements can add up to a hefty bill for the end user.
Over 28% of the participants agreed that using consumer memory had resulted in problems with obsolescence, while 23% said they had experienced issues with loss of data due to unreliable connectors. Choosing a controlled connector so that only approved products fit is perhaps the best way to resolving the issue. If you design in USBs or camera cards, users can plug in untested and unqualified consumer memory. This isn’t the case with a specialist memory key or token.
Incompatibility between products from different manufacturers created difficulties for 22% of respondents, while theft of the memory product itself has been a problem for 10% of the designers surveyed.
This point highlights the fact that there are cases where secure and rugged industrial memory can find a home in an application where one might usually use a high street USB stick. Just think about the accounts of Government departments who have lost crucial client data over the last couple of years by moving it around the country on a CD, memory card or USB!
Changing memory standards have surprisingly created few crises, perhaps because of the number of machines that are now built on a ‘fit and forget’ basis, only 8.5% of participants claiming this had affected them. History shows that USB and SD ‘standards’ are driven by the consumer market and changes can adversely affect embedded OEMs who adopt the products. For instance SDHC cards use a different addressing method to SD cards, meaning embedded devices using SD can’t also use its successor, even though they fit in the connector.
Using the right form factor can give additional benefits. It can discourage theft, because USB drives and SD cards are targets for light fingered employees, but a stock design from a specialist portable memory supplier isn’t. If there is the possibility of product or data theft in your application, this should be an important consideration.
Although our survey has turned up some shocking figures, I wouldn’t say they are in any way surprising. Accounts from Nexus GB’s customers over the years have illustrated quite a few of the problems highlighted by the survey. For example, we were once contacted by a client the day they launched their own product because, on that very same day, they had received a letter from the consumer memory manufacturer requesting a ‘last time buy’ order before production ceased! Sadly, in the consumer memory world, Moore’s law makes this situation inevitable.
According to the idea outlined by Gordon Moore in 1965, computer chips double their output every eighteen months. This is true of consumer memory, where the need to store and play increasingly large files such as high resolution photographs, films and games means that we demand a huge capacity from the USB on our key ring. It’s not surprising that consumer applications quickly outstrip industrial ones – it can often take an OEM eighteen months to get a project from drawing board to production line!
When one summarises the issues our survey highlighted, it’s easy to see why electronics is an industry beset with memory problems. After all, the reason we are designing memory into the application in the first instance is the data or functionality that the memory device contains. The device itself is secondary to the ultimate function, which makes it ironic that the use of consumer memory can create so many issues, while the stress free alternative of industrial memory often remains in the shadows.
Victoria Barrett is the PR and marketing director for Nexus GB; the UK and Ireland exclusive distributor for US manufacturer Datakey Electronics’ range of portable, rugged keys and tokens containing non-volatile memory. These reliable and re-programmable items provide data transport, security, and access control solutions even in extreme environments where other methods, such as USB memory, would not survive. Furthermore, distinct from consumer-like memory solutions, they are a well established product that will not become obsolete as technology progresses. As a result, they are commonly used by design engineers working on long term projects, with more than three million units currently in UK service.