Elfin Technologies

Small system coding services

Embedded controllers everywhere

To many hobbyists and anyone interested in electronics, it is frustrating to open up just about any device these days and find so little you can understand, despite having a decent technical background. Even children's toys, which once had some pretty sophisticated and mechanically interesting internals, often contain little more then one small circuit board, with almost everything connected to one master "mystery" chip.

All this is due to the explosion in microcontroller technology, and while it is a major hindrance to those wanting to learn how something works or improve its function, it is a dream come true for manufacturers. And if you have plans of becoming such a manufacturer, even on a small scale, you can reap great benefits from incorporating a microcontroller into your project, and Elfin Technologies can help you get there.

To DIY (do it yourself), or contract out the work

With such an incredible array of ready made controller boards these days (Arduino, Wixel, Rasberry Pi, PICAXE, to name a few), and the near infinite information resources, forums, and manufacturers aids available, I always encourage technically minded people to consider learning to do this on their own, especially if they are personally involved with the technology on an ongoing basis (either professional or hobby). Of course we still very much want to help you with your project, and are happy to offer that extra assistance which might be all you need. Aside from the obvious satisfaction, your personal involvement means the project can be altered or enhanced at any time, even 10 years from now, without tracking down an original contractor.

On the other hand, if you're interests are higher level, and you simply want help translating your idea into a device for your own use or future marketing, we can certainly help you from the start of planing and design through to the finished product. The reason for this page, however, is to help you better understand when various embedded controller options are the best choice. When you consult with us about a design idea, we may want you to carefully consider whether or not your device is a good candidate for incorporating a controller.

Such overkill...    Must everything have a computer?

That is a great question, and indeed sometimes the answer is really "no!". Truthfully it often does seem like overkill when even the simplest of devices or appliances have some kind of embedded processor, and certainly there are some disadvantages. For example...

  • A micro-controller based device can be less reliable without a lot of extra manufacturing safeguards that often are disregarded to control costs. This is simply due to the more delicate nature of MCU based devices.

  • A device with a processor might also need expensive FCC clearance depending on certain design details, a definite consideration if you are planning to market more than a few.

  • Devices with controllers can often require more development time. Sometimes!

  • Devices with controllers can sometimes cost more to build... again, the key word is sometimes.

On the other hand...

Despite all those important considerations, the advantages of a controller are compelling! Here are some of the major advantages of basing your design around a micro-controller.

  • Do you think the first version of your project will be final? Think again! Will the device ever benefit from an enhancement or adjustment of any kind? More often then you might realize, the answer is going to be YES! And when that time comes, a programmable device will allow both behavioral and function changes with much greater ease, often without ANY changes to the circuit.

  • That point bears repeating: Coding changes are always far less costly (often free!) when compared to circuit changes, which can include scrapping PC boards, adding additional parts, re-building, and sometimes increasing the size of the circuit. Granted, a coding change can't always come to the rescue, but quite often it does.

  • Depending on the complexity of the device you are planning, there is a point at which a lower part count will be required with a circuit based on an MCU, when compared to the same functionality without it. Less parts means faster, cheaper, and more reliable duplication of the device, so quantities do play a big part in the decision. Think about the last time you bought a "network card" for a desktop computer, and saw there was barely a handfull of parts on the whole product!

  • Once upon a time building even a simple programmable device meant a great deal of parts just to get started. These days, entire systems including the processor, memory, input/output capability, and multiple peripheral devices are built into single integrated circuits called "System on Chip" (SoC) ICs, and many of these are already available in small (sometimes postage stamp sized) PC boards, ready to drop into your project with minimal fuss and compelling prices.

  • An idea implemented in a microcontroller virtually guarantees it will be a much more difficult device for a copy-cat to steal. Anyone can get the same parts, but getting the code out of a microcontroller is not always so simple, and with a few added safeguards can be made nearly impossible.

Why Elfin Technologies

If you do consider working with Elfin Technologies for your device design and microcontroller coding, we can promise delivery of code that is well organized, highly efficient, bug-free, well commented, and possibly the most easily maintainable code available. Despite any ongoing maintenance agreement and guarantees we offer, it is of great value to know you are getting a product you can bring to another competent engineer for additional work. And we'll even boast that any such future engineer will breath a sigh of relief seeing what they are being given to work with.

I understand that I am "tooting my own horn" here, but I can offer you some solid industry references who will testify to the quality of my coding. If you've worked with other companies or contractors before on a project similar to what you're considering now, you already know how important that is. Experience means a great deal too. Having written complex programs with history spanning back to the days of ATARI home computers (when memory was pretty scarce!), through industrical control systems in electric utility substations, I can tell you with significant pride that this kind of background is not easy to come by.

So DO I need a microcontroller?

Whether you are sure your project will require a microcontroller of some kind, or understand that it is just one possible approach, start by using our Contact form to tell us about your project. You may also want to read our general Electronic Design and Consultation page first (you can get to the contact form as well as a personal resume from there as well).

Whatever you decide, we want to wish you the very best of luck and success, and hope you will keep Elfin Technologies in mind throughout your project development.