The houses that RISC OS builtBy Martin Hansen. Published: 28th Apr 2007, 09:24:11 | Permalink | Printable
New homes designed and produced using RISC OS kitRISC OS is said to be used in set top boxes scattered across the world, and a mobile phone developer reportedly bought up a load of RISC OS 5 kit. But some applications of ROS are much closer to home. Martin Hansen reports on the growing use of RISC OS in the timber frame housing industry.
Click here to see the full gallery of photos.
Setting the scene
With the demise of Acorn's ill fated Phoebe project in late 1998, and the disintegration of Acorn itself shortly after, the dream that the world's desktop computers would be based upon the Acorn RISC operating system died. The fact that RISC OS is still around and running on native hardware that is vastly superior to what Pheobe was intended to be is remarkable.
That RISC OS has managed to survive for almost ten years below the radar of mainstream computing is partly be due to its die hard band of loyal desktop users. They appreciate how technically brilliant Acorn was. They're also willing and able to work around the shortcomings that have arisen as a cash starved RISC OS struggles to provide what a modern user expects from a desktop machine.
Even so, is it not incredible that users of the new Vista operating system are, in 2007, marvelling at their latest high quality font rendering and management system that can only now match what Acorn had ten years ago? Or that RISC OS's two-decade old desktop user interface is still considered by many who routinely use it to be preferable to that provided by Apple or Microsoft?
Of course, the incremental edging forward of RISC OS itself, the availability of Virtual Acorn emulation and fundamentally new native hardware from two separate manufacturers has helped save RISC OS from utter oblivion. As both Castle Technology and Advantage Six constantly emphasise, the diminished RISC OS desktop market could not in itself support ongoing software and hardware innovations. It is embedded applications that have kept RISC OS alive as a viable financial proposition.
Frustrated desktop users rarely get to hear the detail of embedded uses of RISC OS. Rumours emerge and drobe.co.uk readers are aware of the manufacture of many a ROS-powered TV set top box and a high quality public display and information system. The fact that RISC OS is at work in such devices is kept hidden. Often it requires an eagle-eyed RISC OS enthusiast to spot something in the field and report upon it for the rest of us get to get a hint of where embedded RISC OS has captured a market. Such was the case recently when a Drobe reader reported that the RISC OS desktop appeared momentarily as a public bus control and information system powered up in southern France.
Back to basics
This flicker of a completely functional RISC OS desktop made me rethink what the words "embedded application" mean. If asked previously, I would have replied that talk of an embedded application implied cut down hardware. At last year's RISC OS roadshow in Newcastle, for example, a designer and manufacturer of hardware to control traffic lights told me how he still used a 6502 processor at the heart of his designs.
The 6502 was the processor used in the original BBC-branded Acorn microcomputers of the 1980s. In many respects, it can be thought of as a RISC processor. This in spite of being around before the Reduced Instruction Set Computer was identified as an alternative microprocessor design concept. His traffic light controllers were programmed with the aid of a BBC Micro because of the ease with which he could assemble the 6502 machine code needed from within BBC BASIC. He was making a good living from this niche embedded application, with the help of Acorn kit.
Thanks to the French flicker, it is clear that an embedded application was any situation in which RISC OS is being used for a single dedicated purpose, and its users are not always aware that they are using a computer. In order to run the single application, hardware has been purchased. This could be an off-the-shelf Iyonix or A9home, say, which we would more ordinarily think of as being a desktop computer rather than an embedded device.
Thus primed, I've been on the lookout for embedded RISC OS in action. As a drobe.co.uk reporter I sought to lift the veil of mystery surrounding the issue. In fact, the seeds of this article were planted four years ago when I first met Martin Devon.
At a RISC OS show this friendly and talkative man, pictured, told me that he had just retired from his post as ICT consultant at Stonar School, in Wiltshire. Shortly afterwards we made mischief by making public the school's misguided decision to switch from RISC OS to Windows. Of course, vast numbers of state schools had been making the switch to the Microsoft platform for years, funded to the max by the taxpayers via the Labour government.
I fume that my taxes bought Microsoft products in preference to those from Acorn. It was madness: a small independent school of limited means with a slick and up-to-date system throwing it all away. Unwanted and unloved: one-hundred-and-twenty networked StrongARM machines running the latest version of RISC OS 4. It is equally shocking that vastly greater quantities of Windows machines get binned every minute of every day. When it's RISC OS it's harder to simply shrug and say "C'est la vie". Thankfully, CJE Micros stepped in to save them from the skip, and quite a number went to Sharon Pointeer at Knightsfield School. Even so, I like to think we embarrassed Martin Devon's former school.
Martin concluded his business with me at that time with a jokey comment requesting that, should he die before I, he'd like me to step in an oversee the use of some RISC OS embedded applications software that he was going to return to developing, part-time, as a retirement hobby. Without thinking about it too much I said "yes".
I'd forgotten about this by the time I got an email concerning this software at the start of this year. Oh, dear. Was Martin Devon now six feet under? Was I being contacted from beyond the grave? Ah, not at all: Martin's software project was developing apace. The directors of the two companies to whom he had licensed Panel Editor, for around £15000 a year apiece, wanted to meet me. I enthusiastically said I'd love to meet them, see their factories, and see exactly what this particular embedded RISC OS application did.
And so it came to pass, last week, that I spent an hour in the car journeying down from Shrewsbury to Hereford to visit two manufacturers of timber framed housing. One, in Presteigne, is called Frame Wise, the other, a short drive away, Taylor Lane. As I passed through Knighton towards the end of my drive, I spotted a house under construction and, as I had time to spare, I decided to check it out.
In the frame
This random sighting was indeed, as I hoped, of timber frame construction. Such houses are erected quickly. This one already had an outer skin of breeze-blocks hiding the inner wall which, on a traditional building, would also be of brick or stone. On a timber frame structure this inner wall is of wooden panels.
I began to appreciate that it was in the design and manufacture of these wooden panels that Martin's Panel Editor software must assist. Were I to revisit this building in a few weeks time, the panels that weere visible and available for my scrutiny would have been covered over with thick insulation and plasterboard. Once finished, little remains visible inside or out to distinguish a timber framed constructed home from any other. The popularity of timber framed buildings is increasing rapidly in England. Over 20 percent of buildings in this country are now built around a timber frame. It is even more popular in Scotland.
I was pleased that I had acquired experience of what a timber framed building was like. After arriving at the large Frame Wise complex I was shown through a maze of winding corridors to where Martin Devon was working. He was installing a software upgrade onto three machines that ran the Virtual Acorn RiscPC emulation package. Although mostly written in BBC BASIC he had added some ARM machine code to Panel Editor to drive a networked laser printer directly.
Users of the Virtual Acorn emulator might be interested to know that the code I saw written in ARM assembler was PCL6 raster graphics. It uses RemotePrinterFS directly by bypass the Windows printer driver which, to quote Martin, "is too clever for its own good." The same technique works from an A9home.
Checking for sanity
I watched as he rapidly concocted test materials to send to the printer. I started to realise that his software handled the tedious parts of designing a panel and allowed the designer to focus on the bigger picture. It prevented daft, and potentially very expensive, mistakes from being made. It would not allow a panel to be designed that did not satisfy the relevant parts of the British Standard 5268 (Structural use of Timber) building regulations.
I have a rather dim view of ISO 9000 quality control which was famously described as "a way to guarantee that concrete life jackets are manufactured to a high standard". However, Martin explained: "My software tracks every action carried out on a job file for ISO 9000 quality control. It has happened more than once that a company which has allowed a serious mistake to get through has been bankrupted by it."
I watched as Panel Editor produced a "saw file". Later this would be fed into a £123000 machine that chopped the wood into the lengths needed to manufacture the panel. Martin's software structured the saw files so that the machine sliced up the timber in a way that minimised wastage not just for a single panel, but for an entire construction project.
It even produced lists of the order that the completed building's panels should be loaded onto the enormous flat bedded lorries that were driving out of the factory gates as we sat there. Later, workers on a building site would find that the order in which the panels came off the lorry were pretty much as they required them, sorted as external then internal ground floor panels, then working upwards, each stacked in an optimal way for transport. Transport and subsequent erection at the building site would be maximally efficient.
Frame Wise is run by a husband and wife team. I asked if they enjoyed using the Panel Editor software. They did and, keen that I understand the size of the projects it could routinely handle, showed me recent photographs of a large seven storey building that their company had under construction opposite the railway station in the centre of Swindon.
In our conversation about this and other big projects it was clear that the company had moments when the pressure to turn around designs and get the goods manufactured and to site were intense. I wondered about the advisability of using Virtual Acorn in such time critical moments. It obviously could cope although Martin confided in me later that it was not quite ideal. As we left Frame Wise he showed the directors an A9home, and he'd clearly prefer them to move across and use hardware on which RISC OS ran natively.
Hide and seek
The drawing office at the second company I visited that day, at Taylor Lane, was more impressive from the point of view of a RISC OS enthusiast. Here they were investing steadily RISC OS hardware rather than making do with emulation. As I wandered around, I enjoyed playing spot-the-A9home. The little blue Advantage Six bricks were discretely tucked away somewhere on each designer's work space. In all I counted eleven. Martin began installing the unit he had shown the directors at Frame Wise. So, twelve in all.
Also a crucial part of the set up at Taylor Lane were the three RiscPCs. These were ten years old and responsible over their lifetimes for processing, literally, millions of pounds worth of timber frame panels.
At Taylor Lane I asked to be shown the manufacturing side of things and was taken on a tour of a vast warehouse where teams worked on assembling the panels. Everywhere, printouts from Panel Editor were attached to clipboards as timber was cut, gathered together in stacks and then nailed together rapidly with the aid of some mean looking compressed air powered nail guns.
Back in the drawing office Martin finished installing the twelfth A9home, and then moved next door to where the aging, but still very much alive, upgraded RiscPCs were. These use Sunfish to connect to an Allegro NFS server running on the Company's Windows 2003 server.
With a mischievous glint in his eye Martin told me that this is set up to allow the RiscPCs to pass through the Windows firewall as if it isn't there. Rather than having to update each A9 separately, he placed the upgrade in the Panel Editor section of the main server from where the RiscPC designated as the 'master' could access it. Now, via the office network, the next time each A9 powered up, it would grab the upgrade automatically.
This was a trick Martin had perfected from his teaching days to avoid tediously upgrading software one machine at a time on those 120 machines at Stonar School.
We then moved around the drawing office. Three designers had reported a problem with Panel Editor since the last time Martin visited Taylor Lane. I was very struck with how respectful they all were to him. None of the problems were serious or time consuming.
For me, the day was inspiring to see RISC OS being used purposefully by a focused and productive team of talented and skilled people. I'd loved the noise of wooden panels being nailed together, and watching an industrial saw slicing up wood in an instant. "It must be so very satisfying", I'd remarked to Martin Devon as a massive truck laden with panels left through the factory gates, "to know that your RISC OS software is the crucial link behind pretty much everything that was going on here."
As I arrived back home in Shrewsbury my tail of the day received it's final twist. Eleven houses down from my house a new construction had popped up upon ground that had been cleared over the previous three weeks and upon which only concrete foundations had been visible when I'd left that morning. The name upon the blue cloth covered wooden panels was Frame Wise. Ah yes, yet another house that RISC OS built.
Click here to see the full gallery of photos.
Frame Wise website
Taylor Lane website
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