Evolution of an Avionics Translator - The difficulty of making something easy
About ten years ago Excalibur Systems decided to create a new product, an avionics translator (MACC - Miniature Airborne Communications Converter). This would build upon our decades of experience with avionics interfaces but add two new elements. This new product designed to fly as opposed to our test boards that were primarily used in the lab or ground maintenance area, it would also need to be customized to fit the precise translation needs of each customer.
Our hardware department already had some experience with environmental specs such as MIL-STD 810 and they were tasked with putting together a rugged enclosure including MIL-STD connectors and MIL-Spec power.
The software group first did a competitive analysis and discovered that the competition tended to fall into one of two categories. The first category consisted of a general-purpose computer supporting multiple avionics interfaces. The customer would then write an application to perform the translation. The second category was a full custom product designed around each customers particular requirements.
We rejected both approaches. We didn’t want to burden our customer with writing a translator – that isn’t their expertise and shouldn’t be their problem. On the other hand, custom work involves high risk in terms of schedule and cost both for our customers and for us.
We chose instead to produce a translator that would use downloadable tables as the basis for its translation. The tables could be set up by the user, or by us based on an ICD provided by the customer, and then be catered by the customer in case any requirements changed. In practice, we discovered that we prefer to do the first iteration ourselves because we could do in a few ours what might take the customer weeks. Our experience has been that most customer don’t need to change the tables and those customers that do, find it much easier to add or change a table than to create one. Thus, the MACC was born.
Designing the translation tables had challenges of its own. The more flexible you want the tables to be the more complex the tables became. We decided that simplicity should also take precedence over flexibility. This not only improves the user experience; it also gets the product out the door much faster.
Of course, there would always be a customer who needed some flexibility that we had not included. Each time this happened we added the functionality in a generic way. Since we only added functionality that was actually needed, rather than what one of our engineers thought might one day be needed, we ended up with a much more streamlined system than we would have design by ourselves.
The MACC II today barely resembles the original MACC that we designed ten years ago. We added numerous capabilities, options and interfaces. Since we did it incrementally and based on customer needs the risk of each of these customizations was minor. After supporting well over 100 projects over land, air and sea the MACC II has become a mature, sophisticated product with a fairly simple user interface.
This article was written by: David Koppel CEO - Excalibur Systems