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Mixed Signal Is Already A Default In Consumer Space: Mistral Solutions
Friday, August 03, 2012:
Mistral Solutions is a technology design and systems engineering company providing end-to-end solutions for product design and application deployment. Started in 1997, Mistral Solutions has entered key areas in the consumer and the defense sectors as it aims to increase its profile in the burgeoning electronics market.
Narayanan Bhattathiripad, senior vice president (Emerging Business) and Krishnakumar M, VP-Product Engineering Services (Delivery), spoke to Ashwin Gopinath of EFY about the company's expansion plans and challenges in designing for the defence sector.
Q: Could you give us an Overview of Mistral Solutions ?
Mistral focuses totally on embedded solutions. As you know, the embedded domain is a vast area. So we have a few key focus areas. We have 3 business units that we focus on. 1. Product engineering services 2. Defense solutions 3. Homeland security. In product engineering, as the name suggests, we design and develop products from concepts for customers. These are products for a few of our verticals. Verticals are consumer electronics, telecom equipment, automotive infotainment, non-invasive medical devices. In defence solutions, we work on providing hi-end solutions for the Indian defence primarily DRDO and other Indian Defense Labs (We are slowly moving on to providing solutions for other coun tries too). These include high end equipment, which goes into radars and missiles and aircraft carriers. Homeland security is our newest realm of business that focuses on system integration and providing solutions to security surveillance in cities and homes/offices.
In a nutshell, we are primarily a Design Services Organisation focusing only on Embedded System Solutions.
Q: So, when you design for consumer electronics, do you design the whole system or is it a sub-assembly like a board or a certain chip etc?
A: It varies. In consumer electronics, we have a lot of designs which come to us at a nascent stage. We take it through the specifications, requirements, design development, hardware, software and mechanical integration. We do low volume production (a few 1000s). The products that we do roll out, we take them through the complete product life time support i.e. warranty and servicing. So itís sort of an end to end support system we got here at Mistral.
At the same time, there are cases where we are not required to work on the entire design. This happens mostly in the defence sector. The Defence systems are huge, both in size and complexity. They do a part of it and outsource the rest. So in such cases, we are required to only work at a sub-system level.
Also, there's a division under our defence team that does system integration. There, we take commercially available products (chassis and computer boards et al) and integrate them with our proprietary boards to provide a complete solution. So those can be seen as more or less a system level or a large sub-system level design project.
Q: Do you own a manufacturing unit or do you outsource the process to vendors?
A: We work exclusively through our associated 3rd party partners. As a design house, our main strength lies in the fact that we have great expertise in designing for manufacturing and in our ability to work with the contract manufacturers and guide them through the the New Product Introduction(NPI) process. A lot of our customers want us to give them a complete solution including design, development, NPI and oral prgram management of procurement. In fact, for one our recent orders, we did a complete box from India and the customers of our clients can buy it directly from Mistral. So, to that extent we understand end-to-end manufacturing pretty well.
Q: What, would you say, is the USP of Mistral Solutions?
A: I would say it has to be our strong platform knowledge in both hardware and software along with our ability to develop complex boards and see them through the production phase. In the last 4-5 years, the focus has shifted from being a services company which also did software and hardware to a complete system design business frame of mind. As Narayan mentioned, we sometimes undertake complete system design and sometimes just a part of it. The idea is to show our customers that we are capable of handling all kinds of job decriptions.
Q: Where are your design centres located ?
A: We have only one R&D/Design centre and it is located in Bengaluru.
Q: In the defence sector, is DRDO your only focus?
A: Without any doubt, as of now, our major focus is the DRDO. But we do have customers who could be providing solutions to their defense orgnisations. So, in an a way, we are indirectly working with the defence organisations of other countries too. In countries for e.g. the US, there are certain restrictions on outside investment in the country's defences. But some countries in Europe are a little flexible on outside investment.
Q: Can you tell us how working in defence is different from working in the consumer market?
A: Whatever solutions we provide for the defence organisation, it's all very hi-tech, both with respect to the hardware and software. The solutions are superior not only vis-a-vis reliability but also complexity. We look at the defense market as a learning ground for engineers to work effectively in the consumer space. The emphasis on research is very high in the defense field and hence there is a lot more chance to innovate. What happens in the consumer market is that when we get the product specs, we more or less know what we have to do. The challenge lies in designing it accordingly and also on doing a great job on the non-functionality parameters like performance and User Interface. The defence market also relies hugely on the ruggedness of the product. When we deliver a product to the defence labs, we are expected to provide a warranty of 15 years. Hence, while working with the defence, we have to work with a host of strict parameters.
Q: Would it be stretching the point to say that the defense market has helped you in the consumer field ?
A: Not at all. I would say our hardware design capabilities are greatly enhanced by the rugged design that you have to do to meet the defense system requirements. Let me give you an example: Last year, an international client of ours gave us a requirement that the design we showed him had to be less than 8 kgs. Now, reducing weight on a design is not that easy a job. However, based on experience with the rigid defence specs and a lil ingenuity, Mistral had created a few work practices. When we complete our CAD phase, we can easily say how much our PCB will weigh. We maintain our component engineering in such a way that we keep records of all the components that are used so the weight requirement issue was sorted out thanks to this practice which was imbibed by us because of our association with the defense. We make a concerted effort to extract whatever is required vis-a-vis design practices from the defense sector and apply them as is required in the other segments.
Q: How do you see the mixed signal processing growing?
A: I would say that Mixed Signal Processing is a default, atleast in the consumer space. Everyday, we see wirelessly connected devices increasing exponentially and soon, they will be the future default requirement on a device. When you have a market where wireless connnectivity is a given and different types of radios are present on the same device along with hi-speed signals on the same PCB, then you just cannot be a hardware engineer without knowing mixed signals like the back of your hand.
Q: Do you have any exciting technology that you are working on in the consumer market scheme ?
A: In the consumer market, we have conciously stayed away from working on hi-volume production products like smartphones. We work on mostly specialised equipment with reasonably high complexity including (but not limited to) multimedia, audio/video compression.
Our most exciting product has got to be our Head Mounted Computer. The user mounts the device on his head like a head band. It has an LCD screen which comes up right in front of your eyes providing an SVGA resolution to the user giving the feel of a big screen in front of the eye. The entire computing power of the system is located on the band and comes up at the back of the head. It was designed to asssit in hands-free execution of tasks, primarily where the operator has to look up content and then proceed accordingly. It can be used on the factory floor or by a technician. The device will connect wirelessly to a central server and is completely voice activated. It employs a highly directional microphone to make sure to capture only user commands and ignore background noise. It takes english commands and the user can say normal commands like 'next page' 'previous page' 'next directory' and so on to activate the required functions. It can handle multiple files at one time too. The computer also has a head tracker which can assist in browsing through pages. If we move our head to the right, the page shifts to the next page and so on. We see a huge market for this product across different applications.