Understanding Embedded Software and Firmware Engineering

Embedded Software and Firmware are compatible programming disciplines required for any hardware product or control system. Much in the way that mechanical engineering can represent manufacturing a small part or a complex apparatus of hydraulics, robotic arms, and integrated conveyors, understanding Embedded Software and Firmware engineering is about form and function. When you are considering how to tackle the next stage of your engineering journey, you should know the difference between software and firmware engineering and how they integrate with your larger project goals.

Embedded Firmware vs Embedded Software

Both embedded software and embedded firmware share the same foundation as programmable languages based on software. Both control your hardware and play a role in directing complex and simple directions in manufacturing, signaling, and testing. Both works best in coordination between mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and software engineers. Both require expert knowledge on C/C++ development, even when integrating other programming languages. If designed correctly, the line between firmware and software should be seamless and invisible as far as operators are concerned. But there are significant differences between the front end (software) and backend software (firmware).

Embedded Firmware as Framework

  • Writing a software program at its core is writing directions. 
  • The programming code language must supply a series of instructions to complete the task. 
  • Firmware though is the machine code canvas on which your software directs these instructions. 
  • Often called ‘the on-metal code’, it is the closest you can get to the circuit with programming. 
  • The software runs on the firmware, and the firmware communicates the software instructions to the machine, device, or hardware product. 
  • If we use the metaphor of a person operating a machine, the person is the software while the controls, buttons, and levers the person uses to operate the machine represent the firmware. 

Embedded Software as Instructions

  • Once the firmware is in place, the software programming gives instructions on top of the firmware. 
  • Embedded software is what people typically think about when they imagine a programmer coding the ways an application should act depending on the inputs from an operator. 
  • Embedded software uses the embedded firmware framework to direct the instructions.

Embedded Firmware on Chip  

  • Your embedded hardware typically lives on the chips, physical memory, and circuits of your hardware. 
  • ‘On the metal’, it is intentionally difficult to access. 
  • Changing the firmware would risk affecting every software program on your hardware and may even damage the hardware if done after assembly. 
  • Users and operators should not and typically do not have direct access to any of the firmware. 
  • The complexity, power, and capability of the firmware is much more dependent on the physical hardware they are written on.

Embedded Software on Hard Drive

  • Your embedded software is typically designed to be updated, installed, and uninstalled. 
  • An operator can program new functions, run them, change them, and replace or add to those programs. 
  • While the programming still must operate on top of the architecture, it can run on other compatible operating systems. 
  • Memory chips and SD cards on board are other common examples where software lives.

Embedded Firmware Examples

  • BIOS- The basic input output system in all computer hardware.
  • Bootloaders- The low footprint code designed to load your system.

Embedded Software Examples

  • OS- The operating system that holds and directs operator interfaces. Windows, Linux, or Mac OS are common examples.
  • Applications- The various task specific programs that let you direct the input and output of your tasks through an interface. Microsoft Office, Google Search, and social media are good examples.

Engineering Your Embedded Systems 

When you partner with a custom hardware designer, you need more than just engineering expertise to complete workable code, maintain repeatable functions, and work that precision into reliable mass produced hardware. You need a cross functional team of engineers that take a holistic approach to your design. Keeping cost effectiveness, speed, efficiency, quality, and consistency at the forefront of design prevents the kinds of issues that damage your ability to compete. 

  • Industry Specific Experience 
    • Vehicle fuel injection requires pinpoint control. 
    • Aerospace requires constant signal integrity. 
    • Mining equipment requires rugged durability in high-risk environments. 
    • Whatever your industry discipline is, your hardware needs to reflect the regulations and diverse equipment requirements in your hardware. 
  • Agnostic IDE and Debugging 
    • Your embedded systems engineering team needs to compile, test, and produce quality software and firmware. 
    • Comprehensive testing in integrated development environments allows your engineering team to create virtual testing arenas for the code that controls your hardware. 
    • An embedded hardware team that only adheres to a single IDE or debugger might not possess the environment versatility to handle a comprehensive range of variable microcontrollers and power ranges. 
    • Seek an engineering team capable of responding to technology specific requests. 
  • Firmware Architecture
    • Embedded software and firmware development requires time, money, and effort to bring your hardware systems to life. 
    • Proving new technology and custom code requires meticulous testing and vetting. 
    • A quality embedded systems engineering partner keeps a vast library of proof-of-concept modular firmware and software code. 
    • A quality embedded systems engineering partner builds on and refines the library with individualized customizations. 
    • A quality embedded systems engineering partner takes the tenets of institutional memory and applies the benefits to your embedded hardware product. 
    • Your lead firmware architect uses this architecture to create solutions that require less hardware and easier to debug, manage, and reuse.
  • Protocol Agnostic
    • A quality hardware engineer knows that picking the right protocol can make or break a hardware project. 
    • Just like human languages branch and differ depending on their country of origin, different machine languages originated in different parts of the world. 
    • When you need your hardware to talk to other hardware, machines, and equipment, your software and firmware has to accommodate every protocol practical to your market environment.
    • A quality hardware engineer understands the how and when of choosing Ethernet/IP, Modbus TCIP/IP, MQTT, CAN, Modbus RTU, CANopen, Profinet, OPC-UA, and Modbus ASCII.
  • Practical HMI
    • Whether your human machine interface is as simple as labeled knobs and switches, or a fully integrated touch computer screen, the front end of your hardware needs to be programmed to be accessible, visible, and intuitive. 
    • The best engineered firmware and software solutions promote ergonomic comfort and mitigate user strain. 
    • Practical HMI displays pleasing shape, texture, color, and branding elements.
  • Single Source, Vertically Integrated
    • Isolating the disciplines of embedded hardware from each other during the design process is a recipe for disaster. 
    • A software engineer that does not consider the impact of the final product, the structural design of the mechanical engineer, and the signaling needs of the electrical engineer risks creating functional code completely wrong for your project. 
    • Your embedded software requires regular review, support, and consideration from every theater of engineering. 
  • Business Minded
    • There can be numerous means to create your embedded systems solutions. 
    • A software engineer that does not prioritize a business perspective risks coming to a coding solution that functions as requested but in a way that does not put dollars on your bottom line. 
    • A quality software engineer seeks elegant, efficient, and cost-effective solutions for your embedded systems and embedded hardware. 
    • A quality software engineer learns about your business, how it operates, and how best to design firmware and software to support your product longevity. 
    • A quality software engineer creates code capable of supporting a family of different interrelated products necessary to your business.

Our dedicated team of software engineers takes the type of ownership that serves custom automation, embedded hardware, and high volume PCB assembly. Tell us more about your project, schedule a virtual meeting, or call (262)-622-6104 to learn more about how we can help you grow your business with integrated custom programmable technology.