A Practical Guide to Embedded Hardware Design

Embedded hardware design
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Embedded hardware design is a crucial part of the design process for any embedded application used across industries from automotive to medical and aerospace. It involves selecting components, designing circuits, developing and executing software, and testing and validating the embedded system to create custom, high-performance, and reliable systems for various applications, from consumer products to industrial machines.

The composition of embedded systems

Although embedded systems’ complexity varies, they typically include three key components:


Microprocessors and microcontrollers are the foundation of embedded systems’ hardware. Like microcontrollers, a microprocessor is a central processing unit (CPU) combined with other fundamental computing elements, including memory chips and digital signal processors (DSPs). All of the parts are housed on a single chip in microcontrollers.

Firmware and software 

The complexity of embedded device software might vary. Yet, embedded IoT devices and industrial-grade microcontrollers often run relatively straightforward software with little memory.

The operating system in real-time

RTOSes are only sometimes present in embedded systems, particularly for smaller-scale systems. By controlling the software and establishing guidelines for program execution, RTOSes specify how the system functions.

What is embedded hardware?

Embedded hardware, specifically designed to interact with a device’s other components and the environment, is essential for many modern electronics, such as cell phones, medical equipment, industrial machinery, and consumer electronics. It must be carefully designed to meet the device’s needs and minimize power consumption, requiring custom-designed chips and specialized components, including microcontrollers, memory chips, and digital signal processors (DSPs). The right embedded hardware is crucial for a device’s performance. It must be compatible with the software and other components and optimized for its intended purpose while being reliable enough to prevent the device from malfunctioning or failing.

Embedded hardware design

Embedded hardware designs and creates components integrated into a more extensive system, typically a computer or electronic device. It involves selecting, integrating, and optimizing components like processors, memory, networking hardware, and other features.

  • The design process begins with understanding the system requirements, such as power consumption, performance, form factor, cost, etc. This is followed by selecting components and their integration into the system. This includes considering the physical space requirements and the overall system design. 
  • The next step is to optimize the system’s chosen components, including performance and power optimization. This includes selecting components with the optimal clock speed, memory size, and power consumption.
  • Once the components are chosen, their integration into the system begins. This includes selecting appropriate connectors and designing a circuit board that connects the elements and provides power and data connections.
  • Once the hardware is integrated, the system must be tested to ensure the components work correctly. This includes functional testing, hardware debugging, and power optimization.
  • Embedded hardware design is an essential step in developing any electronic device. It requires a deep understanding of system requirements.

Types of embedded hardware

Several types of embedded hardware are available. 

  • The most common type is the microcontroller: This is a small processor used to control the operations of a device or product. It is programmed with instructions and manages the functions of a machine. It is usually found in consumer electronics, medical devices, and industrial applications. 
  • Another type of embedded hardware is the System-on-a-Chip (SoC): This is a single-chip microcontroller that is designed to perform multiple tasks. It is typically used in products that require a high level of integration, such as smartphones and tablets. 
  • Another type of embedded hardware is the Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC): This integrated circuit (IC) is specifically designed for a particular application. It is typically used in products that require high performance, such as gaming consoles and other specialized devices. 
  • The Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA): is the last type of embedded hardware. This integrated circuit type is programmable and used to create custom logic circuits. It is often used in products with constantly changing requirements, such as military equipment.

No matter the type of embedded hardware, it must operate reliably and efficiently. Different types of embedded hardware are designed to meet other requirements, so it is essential to determine which type is best for a particular application.

Embedded hardware design example

Embedded hardware design can create various products, from essential components to complex systems. 

  • The creation of microcontrollers is one example of embedded hardware design. Small, specialized computer systems are often used in robotics and embedded systems to perform complex tasks and precisely control them. To build a microcontroller, engineers must design the circuit board, lay out its features, and program it to execute the required tasks.
  • Another example of embedded hardware is embedded FPGAs. FPGAs, or field-programmable gate arrays, are integrated circuits that users reconfigure to perform specific tasks. They are often used in industrial settings, such as factory automation and robotics, to control data flow or implement complex algorithms. FPGAs are becoming increasingly prevalent in consumer electronics, such as mobile phones and gaming consoles, for they process data quickly and improve performance. 
  • Yet another example of embedded hardware is DSPs or digital signal processors. DSPs are specialized processors designed to process and manipulate digital signals. They are commonly found in audio and video equipment, such as speakers and cameras, to convert analog signals into digital signals and to process audio and video signals in real-time. 
  • Finally, embedded systems include custom hardware, such as ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits). ASICs are microchips designed to carry out a specific task, such as image processing or encryption. These chips are often used in medical devices, such as pacemakers and MRI machines, to process sensitive data and to ensure accuracy. 

It is vital to numerous electronic gadgets and systems, controlling the user interface, processing data, and executing algorithms. From microcontrollers and FPGAs to custom chips and digital signal processors, it is tailored to a particular purpose and can create powerful and efficient systems when paired with software.

Hardware V/S software categorization

Both hardware and software are made up of different parts. The computer’s overall operation would be disrupted without one of them. Hence, let’s examine both the hardware and software categories:


Storage devices, processing devices, controls, output devices, and input devices are several types of hardware:

Storage devices

A piece of hardware known as a storage device serves the primary function of keeping data. Storage devices allow for the long-term storage of data. It is saved in the storage device either temporarily or permanently.

Processing hardware

Raw data is transformed into usable and valuable information on processing gear. The user’s orders are communicated to the input devices, which process the data by them—hardware for all personal computers’ central processor units.

Controlling devices

Controlling devices are used when users want to link the computer to an external device.

Output devices

When users wish to transfer data from one computer device to another, they employ output devices. Among the output devices are printers, speakers, and monitors.

Input devices

Input devices are the tools for transmitting data and the orders issued to the processing gear. The best input devices are keyboards, Mice, and other input devices.


System, application, and programming software are different categories of software.

System software

A computer program called system software regulates how hardware and application software interact. Operating systems best show system software.

The operating system operates the program and the application software. The Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) further illustrates system software.

Application software

A computer program known as “application software” performs numerous functions for the user or another application. The operating system powers the application software. Web browsers, photo editing software, and data processors are a few examples of application software.

Programming software

The creation of other software requires the usage of programming software. Compilers, interpreters, and debuggers are a few examples of programming software.


Embedded hardware design is an integral part of the development of a variety of products. It is a critical factor in ensuring that the product performs as expected and is reliable. Embedded hardware design requires a comprehensive understanding of the various hardware components, their capabilities, and the communication protocols necessary for integration. It also requires a version of the software and firmware that will run on the embedded hardware and the constraints imposed by the environment in which the product will be used. Successful embedded hardware designs require careful planning and execution, attention to detail, and rigorous testing. 

Embedded hardware design has seen significant evolution over the years as new technologies have been developed. This has enabled the development of more powerful, small, and energy-efficient products. In addition, advances in software development have also helped the integration of more complex functionality into small products. 

Overall, embedded hardware design represents a unique and challenging field. It requires a strong understanding of the hardware components, their capabilities, and the software and firmware used on the embedded hardware. It also requires careful planning and execution, attention to detail, and robust testing. With the right approach and the right team, embedded hardware design brings products to life that are reliable, powerful, and energy-efficient.

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