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Mixed Signal Is Already A Default In Consumer Space: Mistral Solutions
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Mixed Signal Is Already A Default In Consumer Space: Mistral Solutions  
Narayanan Bhattathiripad, senior vice president (Emerging Business) and Krishnakumar M, VP-Product Engineering Services (Delivery), Mistral Solutions spoke to Ashwin Gopinath of EFY about the company's expansion plans and challenges in designing for the defence sector.   
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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 it’s 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.

product design, system design

Q: Do you see any technologies coming over from the defense side over to the consumer side ala GPS?
A: We believe that, that is the natural flow of tech. 90% of the breakthroughs in technology is financed and researched on by the government so it's always just a matter of when and not if. Off the top of my head, I can think of autonomous automobiles crossing over into the public domain. It's a relatively untested technology but the amount of study in this section by the government is huge. Another example would be food preservation. The government is researching food preservation techniques to store food more effectively in space. I think that too will find its way into the civilian market sooner rather than later.

Q: Could you tell our readers about a technical challenge that your design team faced and how they overcame it ?
A: Well, there was this one particularly big problem we had with power spikes on one of our boards. Since power spikes are common in many applications, every type of power spike is dealt with in its own way. The one we came across was affecting our battery operated device adversely. Whenever the board was switched on, it produced a spike. Usually the manufacturers put in place a safety to avoid such spikes from producing undesirabe effects. But this project was actually a specialised one and the ASIC(Application Specific Integrated Circuit) we were using wasn't the least bit tolerant to power spikes. These spikes also lasted longer than most spikes(going from micro seconds to very close to half a second). We realised that some of the ASICs we were using were suscpetible to the power spikes and hence we had to find a way to supress them before something drastic happened. We started off with the textbook approach.

We tried damping it using resistors but that didnt work because the spikes were very narrow in width. Next, we used a standard choke because the spikes were appearing on both the ground and the power level. The choke didnt work so we tried using capacitors(even though we knew it wouldn't be feasible because of the resultant increase in size). The capacitors failed too. In the end we had to isolate the components being affected by the noise on a different PCB with a dc-to-dc converter. So, it was a very interesting challenge for us as it was something that we don't usually come across. We had to identify the problem and then run multiple iterarions to narrow the problem to the spikes. It took us a couple of weeks to get the system back in runnin mode. Now we don't take 5 V supply very lightly (laughs).

Q: What marketing strategies does Mistral Solutions utilise ?
A: Honestly, most of our business comes from partners and almost all of it is repeat business. Our customers bring out their products once a year or once every two years and we get into most of them. We have the normal marketing techniques viz. our website and the sales team but our marketing strategy is focussed on our long term partners and clients. We work very closely with semi-conductor companies.

When Mistral started, for the first 5 years, we didn't even have a sales team. We got orders mainly from referrals and subsequent orders were repeat orders. Inspite of that, we grew (very fast, may I add). But as we grew in size, the referral scheme just wasn't enough to stimulate the growth and keep up with the industry. So, we built a sales team and tied up with certain semi-conductor companies and became their preferred design partner. We started leveraging on their sales team and field application engineers to expand our scope. Now, we have other verticals we are handling viz. telecom and medical. We are actively pursuing these verticals to make our visibility in them grow. Vis-a-vis Indian defense, we participate in trade shows which are very focussed on defense projects. We also sposnor some of these events. Plus, since the fact that our target audience is the Indian Labs, and Mistral already has a good rapport with them, that also acts as our indirect marketing technique.

Q: Could you describe your recruitment process?
A: We strongly work through campus hiring. We hire people pre-dominantly from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and a few colleges from outside these 2 states. We also work in close contact with a few colleges from where we have been hiring regularly for the past 5 years. We became the company we are today through campus recruitments, and they still remain the best way to induct talented individuals into our company.

Once they are recruited, they have to go through a rigorous 2-3 month training program to get them "project ready". They are then put in various projects as junior engineers where they get to work on real time projects with a team. For specific key skills that we want to grow into, we also hire laterally. For e.g. when we built our telecom team, we had a team of key people to setup the whole idea and navigate us in the beginning.

Q: Any preferences towards the IIT/NIT crowd?
A: We do NOT go to the IITs, we go to the mid-level engineering colleges. Since most of our operations revove around electrical and electronics, we hire MAINLY in the Electrical and Electrical and Electronics stream and slightly from computer science and IT.

Q: What kind of training do you provide freshers?
A: It is a mixture of both tehcniques. We have tried out a couple of outside agencies. But we found out that it is much more effective when a senior engineer goes and talks to the trainees about a specific application of the theory they studied about than having them purely taught like college. We outsource the basic content training but for each of those courses we have a senior level engineer talking to them and explaining to them how every concept is applied in the main design.

After the 3 month training, we hold a competition where they have to design a device (last year it was a robotic pulley). We give them the raw materials and money(both limited) and then create a real world market environment for them so they can see how it is to deal with the vendors and manage time effectively. The trainees have to complete the excercise within a time period and then we judge their performance. This training gives us the them an idea aout how to work within a team keeping a common goal as their only aim. Its a regular excercise at Mistral and the engineers love this kind of interaction.

Q: Are their any specific skillsets that catch your eye ?
A: We have 3 sets of tests during campus recruitments. An aptitude test followed by a hardware and a software test. All the engineers have to go through all of these tests. During the interview, we quiz them on the tests they passed to judge their line of thinking. We look for knowledge of the concepts and the application of this knowledge. Once we can gauge the level of their knowledge, then as usual, we have the group discussion level to further illuminate their intelligence. A lot of weightage is given to the technical knowledge cos we believe that if u have a grasp of the basics and you know how and where to apply it, the other "soft skills" are always something you can pick up in due course.

Q: The embedded design market is saturated and it is hard for new companies to make a mark. Your comments?
A: We disagree. We think the Embedded space is one of the most promising verticals for growth in the industry. The main challenge is to get skilled personnel and retain them.

Our last year's growth is proof enough that there is no dearth of room for growth in this field. During the recession, the consumer electronics market was one of the very few markets to actually record a growth in sales and value. The number of electronics in the space around us is increasing like crazy. Our cars and homes now have 10 times more electronics in it than the amount say, 5 years ago. Devices are increasing in number and the complexity of the technology they incorporate. The connected devices market is also increasing many fold. In the next 5 years, we foresee a huge growth in our verticals (that's also one way we have chosen our verticals). Lab on chip is another field which will explode in usability. Its basically a chip which can measure a person's vitals (heart rate, pulse, etc) and send those to a remote server for analysis. What we are saying is there is so much potential for growth in this field that it is close to impossible to even imagine it getting saturated atleast for the next 15 years.

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