The Growing Importance of “Embedded Systems”

An embedded system combines both hardware and software. The use of embedded systems has long been established across industries such as aerospace, automotive, industrial machinery, and consumer electronics. However, recent developments — for example, automation, connectivity, analytics, and the Internet of Things — have moved embedded systems to the center of attention within these industries. To achieve the functionality these new developments require, multiple systems must interact precisely with one another. The key to this interaction usually lies within the software part of an embedded system.

For example, in the automotive industry, embedded software has been used since at least the introduction of the antilock braking system (ABS). Today, automotive embedded software is already a multibillion-dollar market, with expected growth rates of roughly 9 percent until 2030. Embedded software is being used in advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and automated driving (AD). In-vehicle infotainment systems are also inconceivable without the use of embedded software.

In the aerospace and defense industry, fly-by-wire systems that automatically control flight operations have been available for decades. Recently, however, system-of-systems approaches have required the coordinated interaction of manned and unmanned aircraft in potentially hazardous situations, dramatically increasing the importance of embedded systems.The machinery and tools industry is also moving from deterministically controlled systems to creating automated smart tools that are self-optimizing in a closed-loop approach. Embedded software is at the heart of enabling these critical features, too.

From a technical perspective, “embedded systems” refers to the integration of software components, computer hardware, sensors, and actuators into a larger mechanical and electronic system. These systems constitute an active chain in which sensors collect external signals that are processed by control units, which then cause actuators to behave in line with the system’s operating purpose.

Outside of individual products or projects, it is important to identify a suitable way to integrate complexity management into the organization itself. Given the far-reaching consequences of improperly managed complexity, such as budget overruns, launch delays, and feature cancelations, the topic should be top of mind for any manager and team member within the product development organization, as well as for adjacent organizations, such as product management and controlling. Especially in the early phases of embedded system development, close attention to minimizing system complexity and maximizing the ability to cope with complexity is of utmost importance. This is a combined responsibility of a cross-functional team, typically consisting of members from product management, R&D, controlling, sales, procurement, and IT.

Larger organizations often establish dedicated teams that are specifically tasked with complexity management. Despite their dedicated roles, these teams require close collaboration with and support from all involved parties in the R&D process to ensure the effectiveness of all complexity management levers. Complexity management and its benefits need to be deeply engraved in a company’s mindset.

Especially in the early phases of embedded system development, close attention to minimizing system complexity and maximizing the ability to cope with complexity is of utmost importance. Properly managing complexity in embedded systems is critical. By applying proper strategies, this difficult task becomes doable. The same as mountaineering, the guidelines for managing complexity are straightforward to learn but tricky to master: plan carefully and follow the right path, make sure to have the right gear with you, and—most of all—know where and when to stop the ascent to greater heights.