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Operator Panel Programming - Software for Embedded Systems

The Client

Wachendorff Elektronik GmbH & Co. KG is a German manufacturer of industrial electronics and of operator panels for vehicles used in agriculture, automation, and construction vehicles. Founded by Rolf Wachendorff in 1978, Wachendorff now operates worldwide with 160 staff members, relying at the same time on a network of partners and system integrators in many countries around the world.

The company's first-class quality standards and client-focused product functionality are illustrated by a number of certificates for the quality of its products, its standards in occupational health and safety, and environmental awareness.

Wachendorff Elektronik pioneered the concept of electronically operated agricultural machines back in 1998. Since then, they became renowned for their innovative technologies well beyond Germany's borders.

The Problem

In 2006 our Client was experiencing difficulty in finding enough qualified specialists in Germany and in meeting the price expectations of an increasingly price sensitive market. To solve these problems, Wachendorff considered outsourcing part of its software development to Romania and India. The measure was expected to bring important drops in costs and no changes in quality. 

The Solution

AROBS was selected from Romania for a pilot time and materials project. One C/C++ AROBS specialist spent a couple of weeks at the Wachendorff's main office in Germany for training, then returned to Romania and transferred the knowledge to the second team member. This project ran for a few months and was highly successful.

Our specialists were initially assigned mostly maintenance and low level programming tasks.  As they became proficient with the hardware components and software tools used by Wachendorff, their tasks diversified, including anything from testing to high level design and new feature development. They have been working on the design, development, and testing of operator panels (user interfaces) used in various types of utility vehicles. These panels act as board computers, monitoring and controlling electronic control units (ECU) like video cameras, cleaning devices, etc. 

Listed next are a few examples of applications of the operator panels AROBS contributed to: control of hydraulics and video camera functions for tractors, job data recording (to be used in invoicing) and GPS data displaying for combine harvesters, controlling the quantity of chemicals sprayed and recording of all application data for spraying machines, monitoring and controlling digger functions for excavators, controlling crane travel hydraulics, jib length and jib inclination angle for mobile cranes, controlling the main functions of rollers, controlling attachments and body-mounted implements of implement carriers, controlling compaction, displaying filling level and the refuse container for refuse compactors, simultaneously displaying video camera images, machine control and alarm elements.

The Challenges

New feature development tasks proved quite challenging, as the specifications were not always fully defined at the project onset. To cope with this situation, we relied on the Agile methodology and followed these steps:

  • Defining product features (initial requirements);
  • Laying out the iteration plan: (kick off meeting -> planning the features -> clarifying requirements -> assigning tasks to team members -> estimating). A typical iteration lasted 1 month;
  • Monitoring the iteration progress / preparing user stories (use cases & design / test cases);
  • Validating the iteration: (sign off meeting - discussing the status);
  • Smoke Testing;
  • Releasing the product (the result was sent to QA after each iteration);
  • Code Reviewing.  

Most of the challenges were related to the hardware components, tools used in the project and functions to be implemented:

  • The wide connectivity range of the electronic control units (ECU);
  • Compatibility with industry standards;
  • The standard communication interfaces: CAN, RS232, Wi-Fi, GSM/GPRS,
  • Bluetooth, GPS;
  • The high resolution displays;
  • The input devices: touch screen, keyboard, joystick;
  • Functions: data logging, video streaming, sensors (light, temperature), LEDs.

Getting trained and doing researches on any new hardware component or tool, mentoring and internal training, communicating with the customer on an ongoing basis, by email and Skype proved really useful in the process, requesting feedback from the customer whenever necessary, managing the new development projects according to the Agile approach, relying on Mercurial for source control and on Mantis for issue tracking, having lead developers continuously review the code, keeping about 10% of the team as “shadow resources”, trained well in advance and ready to help/replace any team member helped us overcome most of the aforementioned challenges.

The Results

The operator panels resulted from the combined effort of Wachendorff and AROBS met our client's high standards of quality. This led to a continuous increase in size of the AROBS team allocated to Wachendorff projects, which reached 14 specialists in 2008. A slight downward trend followed thereafter as a result of the global crisis and hightened competition in the operator panel market. 10 AROBS software engineers are currently allocated on an ongoing basis to Wachendorff projects.