Industry-university research centers drive embedded innovation

Embedded systems are facing growing demands on performance, power, size, cost, time to market, and increased capabilities in general. In order to keep up with these demands, industry research needs to be done in order to make the necessary technological advances – a lot of often time-consuming, inefficient, and expensive research. That is, if companies go it alone.

The Center for Embedded Systems (CES) – an Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) through Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a sister site at Southern Illinois University Carbondale – is partnered with 11 leading electronics companies worldwide including Intel, Toyota, Qualcomm, and Marvell to conduct embedded computing research for the benefit of everyone involved.

Embedded research focus areas

Now in its fifth year, CES’s research projects are focused on power, energy, and thermal aware design; Electronic System-Level (ESL) design and technologies; architectures and programming; software systems; cyber-physical systems; and integrated circuit technologies, design, and test. The current year’s projects – nine at ASU, eight at SIUC, and one joint project – focus on various aspects of multicore and software, low power and thermal management, and hardware performance, among other areas of embedded technology (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: The Center for Embedded Systems, currently in its fifth year, is working on a total of 18 projects between its two university partners that focus on a variety of embedded software and hardware technology developments.
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Partnership structure

As an I/UCRC, CES is a program organized by the National Science Foundation (NSF), who sees importance and benefits in university-industry-government partnerships and provides a framework to formalize the relationship. A majority of funding comes from the sponsoring companies through an annual $50,000 membership fee. Of the membership fee, 90 percent of the funds goes directly toward research and 10 percent goes to managing the CES as overhead. In contrast, if a company wanted to fund university research on its own, the facilities and administrative cost is more than 50 percent of the total research award, says ASU CES Center Director Sarma Vrudhula. On some qualifying projects, the companies’ research funding can also be matched with federal funds through the I/UCRC arrangement.

In addition to funding research more directly, member companies each have one representative to serve on the Industry Advisory Board (IAB). Through the IAB they can screen project proposals from expert faculty at an annual meeting and vote on which projects to fund. The results of the research projects and all resulting Intellectual Property (IP) are shared equally between members. Vrudhula says this can be a turnoff for some companies, but it’s an unwarranted fear. “Competitors like Intel and Qualcomm participate together, and other centers have lots of competitors who participate. Everyone gets something out of it.”

Benefitting from the results

Vrudhula explains that there are three methods of beneficial “tech transfer” that take place through CES.

“The most effective way [of tech transfer] is through people,” Vrudhula says. Companies can participate in internship programs and hire the students who graduate out of the CES research programs. The number of participating faculty and students varies per year, but typically there are about 12 faculty members and 26 graduate students participating through both academic sites.

Companies can also use the software and tools produced by CES and have the option to license them royalty-free. Members may also request exclusive licensing in inventions resulting from CES work.

One of the most valuable and cost-effective ways that companies use the CES research compared to internal research, according to Vrudhula, is to take what’s been done at the university and expand upon it in their own organizations, without disclosing this to competitors in the CES. Many members will use tools and software from at least one project in their own projects because they have worked closely with the research teams and, in come cases, provided data to help create the tools. Companies can also change directions because of the results of the university’s projects.

In this way, companies can use presentations and technologies from the CES research as a method of “precompetitive research,” Vrudhula says. “They don’t have to chase after several possible solutions because they know what works. They can take [the solution] and modify it to their liking, or not try it because they know it won’t work. They’re ahead of where they would be if they didn’t participate.”

Companies join the CES by signing a standard membership agreement used by all members, paying the membership fee, and meeting with the center director to initiate a research project. Member companies participate in two annual meetings of the IAB each year to review and vote on research projects and conduct center business.

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Table 1
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Future plans

The CES is looking to add new universities to the group, including Northeastern University in Boston in 2014, Vrudhula says, as well as potential international partner universities in Europe and Asia sometime in the future.

In 2014 will be covering CES’s various research projects and findings as well as other areas of research into techniques and designs for the embedded systems of the future.

For more information about the CES visit ces.asu.edu.

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