5 tips for more readable Simulink models

With this post, I will share some of the methods I have used over the years to make my Simulink models more readable.

Resize subsystems and reorder ports

Resizing subsystems is a common suggestion to making diagrams more readable.  A step beyond that is to reorder the ports so that the connections between multiple subsystems are more readable.

With this Before/After example, I have done three things

  1. Resized the source and destination blocks
  2. Changed the port order on the source block
  3. Offset the two destination blocks

MATLAB functions for equations

When I am entering in an equation into Simulink, I ask myself 2 questions

  1. Is there a built-in function for this equation (e.g., Integrators, Transfer Functions, table lookups)?  Use the built-in function
  2. Is the equation more than 3 operations long?  Use a MATLAB function.

In text form, the Pythagorean theorem is quickly recognized and understood.  When written out as a Simulink equation it takes slightly longer to understand.

Note: I do have a caveat, if the mathematical operations are series of gains, for instance when converting from one unit to another, then keeping the calculations in Simulink is fine.

Use of  Virtual busses for conditionally executed subsystems

Merging data from conditionally executed subsystems requires the use of the Merge block.  When the subsystems have multiple output ports routing the data quickly becomes cumbersome.  This can be addressed by creating a virtual bus to pack and then unpack the signals.


Note: Using a virtual bus will allow Simulink/Embedded Coder to optimize the memory placement of the signals.  If a structure is desired, then a bus object should be defined and used.

The rule of 40, 5 and 2

When I create a Simulink subsystem, I aim to have a limited number of active blocks in the subsystem (40).  A limited number of used inputs (5) and a limited number of calculated outputs (2).

  1. Active blocks:  Any block that performs an operation.  This count does not include inports, outports, mux, demux, bus…
    1. Why: When the total number of blocks goes above 40 the ability to understand what is going on in the subsystem decreases.
  2. Used inputs: Bus signals can enter the subsystem, and only one signal off of the bus may be used.  A “used signal” is one that is actively used as part of the subsystems calculations.
    1. Why: The number of used inputs is a good metric for how “focused” the subsystem is in addressing a specific issue.
  3. The number of outputs: directly relates to the first two metrics, e.g.h, how focused the subsystem is on a specific issue.

Notes: Subsystems that are integration subsystems (see this Model Architecture post) can and should break this rule.)

Stay out of the deep end, beware of breadth

As a general rule of thumb, I recommend that models have a “depth” of 3.  Navigation up and down the hierarchy quickly can lose a reviewer.  Likewise, for given model, I recommend between 30 and 60 subsystems in total.

Image result for pool deep end

This recommendation holds for a single model.  For integration models, each “child” model should be treated as a single unit.

Final thoughts

These are just a few of the recommendations that I have hit upon in the past 18 years.  I would be curious to hear your thoughts and recommendations.

Interfacing with hardware in Model-Based Design context

Interfaces between low-level device drivers and algorithmic software have multiple unique issues.  These issues exist in traditional text-based development processes and in MBD workflows.  Let’s review the challenges and methods for meeting the challenges.

Hardware challenge

Image result for hardware challengeI decompose the hardware challenges into two categories; conceptual and technical.

Conceptual challenges

For software engineers, the concepts behind hardware interfaces are frequently a source of error.

  1. Finite resolution:  Physical hardware has a finite resolution.  A 12-bit A/D converter will not provide data at a higher resolution than 12-bits.
  2. Temporal non-determinism:  Readings from hardware, unless specifically configured to do so, are not assured to be from the same iteration of the algorithm.
  3. Corrupted data: Data from hardware sources can be corrupted in multiple methods.  The software needs to handle these corruptions in a robust fashion.

Technical challenges

The technical challenges are standard component-to-component interface issues.

  1. Data conversion: Information comes from the hardware in units of counts or encoded information.  This data needs to be converted into engineering units for use in the system.
  2. Hardware/Software interface architecture:  The method for interfacing the hardware and software components requires a stricter encapsulation than software-to-software architectural components.
  3. Component triggering: Hardware components can be triggered using one of three basic methods.  Schedule based triggering, event-based triggers or interrupt based triggers.

Addressing the hardware challenges

Understanding the hardware challenges we can now address them.  The conceptual challenges are addressed through education.

Conceptual challenges

  1. Finite resolution: Analog-to-Digital Converter Testing
    Kent H. Lundberg (MIT)
  2. Temporal non-determinism: The temporal logic of programs
  3. Corrupted data: Removing spikes from signals

Image result for hardware addresses

Technical challenges

Technical challenges are handled with education and patterns.

  • Data conversion: Data conversion is done through any number of simple algorithms, from y = m*x + b equations, table look ups or polynomials.
  • Hardware/Software interface architecture:  Interfaces to the hardware run through a Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL).  The HAL functions can be directly called from within the Model-Based Design environment.
    Related image
    Because the HAL is a discreet function the call to the hardware should encapsulated on a per function basis.  (Note: multiple calls can be made to the function if it is reentrant, however this tends to be less efficient)
    The connection and scaling of the hardware is broken into 3 sub-components shown above.

    • Access to the low level device drivers
    • Data filtering
    • Data scaling
      The top level model architecture interfaces the
  • Component triggering: Hardware components can be triggered using one of three basic methods.  Schedule based triggering, event-based triggers or interrupt based triggers.  Information on how to trigger component can be found here.

Final thoughts

Well defined interfaces between hardware and software is provide clarity in communicating design intent.  The model architecture can be developed from the basic architecture proposed here, with the hardware inputs and outputs being a top level integration system.



Image result for marriage of hardware and software

On the road again…

Interacting customers are the way I learn; each time I go on the road I have the chance to interact with my customer; see the challenges they face and the ways in which they attempt to solve them.  So with reflection, what are the top 3 things I learn from customers.

Number 1: Clear is only clear in hindsight

Model-Based Design processes involve many design patterns (small work objects) and workflows (multiple patterns executed in a logical sequence).  Customer patterns and workflows, both the good and bad, evolved over time in response to challenges they faced.  Often the work that I am brought in to do is to help my customers both simplify and improve their existing workflows.

Often the work that I am brought in to do is to help my customers analyze then simplify and their existing patterns and workflows.  This analysis both allows me to learn from the customer as well as share the lessons I have learned over time from other customers.

Image result for hindsight

Number 2: Teams matter

The development process is only as strong as the team working on the project.  Ideal teams have a coordinated objective and a unified understanding of how the Model-Based Design process should proceed.  Communication of both the lessons learned and the obstacles encountered makes is a major key to succeeding.

Image result for tug of war

Number 3: Deadlines can shift …

At the start of an MBD adoption process deadlines are set, often, with a limited understanding of the full set of tasks involved in migration. Image result for deadline They are estimates. The way customers evaluate and update deadlines should be based on the following rationale.

  1. Unexpected efficiencies found post migration
  2. Additional tasks required to validate migration
  3. Increased or decreased scope of project
  4. Are there externally mandated deadlines:  Some deadlines are attached to other projects

Final thoughts

One of the great joys of being a consultant is having the chance to work with a wide range of individuals, each of whom brings a unique insight into the software development process.  I look forward to my next 20 years of interactions.

Why Adopt?

These blog posts have focused on the adoption of Model-Based Design.  The choice of the word “adoption” was intentional.  When I visit a customer I tell them the following.

“80% of what I will recommend is generic best practices, common
across all Model-Based Design.  The next 10% is a selection of common
patterns in use relevant to your industry and regulatory needs.
The last 10% is the unique part of your development; your intellectual property”

Why do I say this?  Model-Based Design, from an architecture, data, and V&V perspective is now a mature field.  In a mature field, time should be spent on developing the IP aspects of design, not infrastructural components.  To that end, there is a significant body of best practices available for companies to reference.  (See the reference page for a small subset.)

How to succeed at adoption?

As this blog has spoken about on a number of occasions adoption is a process.  To succeed there are 5 key activities that need to be performed

Related image

  1. Take background training
  2. Education on existing MBD frameworks (see references)
  3. Identify non-conforming cases (your 10% IP)
  4. Validate MBD approach for non-conforming cases
  5. Utilize external resources

External resources: final thoughts

Success often comes from knowing when to ask for outside help, either from other groups within your company who have already blazed a trail or from outside support groups (such as training and consulting.)  Utilizing support early in the adoption process enables a faster rate of adoption with fewer implementation issues.


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Translate: essence, not the content

Very few projects start off with a clean slate; the majority have some body of existing text-based code (C/C++/Asembler) which needs to be either translated or wrapped into the Model-Based Design environment.  For the cases where translation is the desired path, the objective should be the translation of the essence (e.g. requirements) not the content.

Why translate essence, not content?

First, every programing language has unique constructs which may or may not be directly replicable in other languages.  Because of this, a common failure mode is to try and directly replicate coding patterns in the MBD environment.


Second, when you translate the based on the requirements you have the opportunity to improve upon the existing code.

There is a function for that…

It is common with text-based algorithms to implement basic functions such as table look ups, integrators, etcetera.  While in some edge cases the text-based implementation is more efficient this is less common with the growing maturity of Model-Based Design tools.


Further, the small efficiency gains from the existing implementation are frequently less important than the clarity found by using built in blocks.

It is really a…

In text based languages truth tables and state machines are implemented as either a series of if/then/else or switch/case statements.  Within MBD environment both truth tables and state machines have direct implementations.

Pushing things too far…

The final note, there are some areas where text based modeling makes the most sense.  Generally, this is in the area of long complex equations.  While they can be rendered in block form they are more easily read in text form.  With that in mind, I recommend using MATLAB blocks for longer equations.


The image above, the Pythagorean theorem, is relatively simple.  Yet even it would be more easily read as

C = sqrt(A^2 + B^2)

Final thoughts (part 1)

When translation occurs it is important that the new implementation is validated against the behavior of the existing code.  Failure to do so can result in larger system level errors.

Final thoughts (part 2)

In my translation example, I used the simple phrase “I have the cutest cat in the world”  I submit the following images to back that claim up




Clean code: clean models?

In a recent customer conversation, I was asked if there was a mapping of Model-Based Design (MBD) constructs to the concepts of “smells” found in  Martin Fowler Clean Code. Fowler’s book was written targeting the Java, however, many of the concepts have direct mapping onto other programming languages.  Maping onto other object-oriented text-based languages are easily seen.  Hence the question of how OO smells could be mapped onto MBD.

Note: I am reviewing this in the context of developing embedded code using Simulink and Embedded Coder. The Clean Code was written with object-oriented user interfacing code (e.g. web pages, spreadsheets,…)

Fowler’s book defines 7 primary sources of smells:

  1. Comments:  Covers lack of comments, obsolete comments or out of date comments
  2. Environment: Covers the automation of build and test operations
  3. Functions: Covers definition of function interfaces and dead code
  4. General: 36 guidelines that cover a range of coding best practices
  5. Java: Issues specific to the Java programing language
  6. Names: Covers fundamentals of naming conventions
  7. Tests: Covers best practices for testing

Image result for 7 deadly sins

Quick overview

For some of the smells, there is a direct and easy mapping.

Comments: Models are, to an extent, self-documenting.  Additional documentation should be added as needed.  Fowler’s recommendation on keeping comments concise and up-to-date are directly mappable.

Environment: The smells in this section deal with automation of the build and test steps. There is a direct mapping for these smells and the recommendations for automation are standard for MBD environments

Naming conventions: For information on naming conventions (from and earlier MathWorks blog I wrote): A few thought on Naming Conventions

Tests: The smells for tests are standard recommendations for testing.  Earlier blog posts on testing can provide the mapping onto these smells.

Image result for quick

Deeper look

Of the 7 smells, I want to spend more time looking at both the “Functions” and “General” groupings.

Image result for the deep


Fowler has 4 smells related to functions, of the 4 MBD conforms to 1.5 of them.

  1. Too many arguments:  Control of physical systems require multiple bits of information.  Fowler’s recommendation of 0 ~3 input arguments doesn’t hold.  (It is also a function of object oriented programming that allows for that rule).  At the same time validate that the inputs to the function are required.  The MBD smell for function arguments is found in non-required inputs.
  2. Output arguments:  Like input arguments modeling control systems requires output arguments to continue the control flow.
  3. Flag arguments: Control algorithms frequently depend on modal conditions.  It is preferable to use these conditions to control enabled type subsystems or modal logic within a Stateflow chart.  Hence the .5 agreement on this one.
  4. Dead functions: Full agreement here; avoid dead functions at all cost.

Image result for enabled subsystem simulink


The generalImage result for general category includes 36 different code smells; I have subcategorized them into N themes

  1. Clear functionality: The behavior and function of the model should be clear from its construction.  Further, all functionality of the model should be implemented.
  2. Readability: The model should be easy to read.  The MAAB style guidelines have a direct mapping for this category.
  3. Encapsulation: The model’s functionality should exist within a scope of the model; e.g. there should not be calculations dependent on methods outside of the model.  I wrote about these issues in the Model Architecture section of this blog.
  4. Scope of  variables: With the exception of user defined I/O and parameters MBD tools automatically define the scope of variables making these rules, for the most part, irrelevant
  5. Reuse: Smells dealing with the reuse, and failure to reuse.  These rules are directly mappable looking at the use of Referenced Models and Libraries to achieve the aim.
  6. Object-oriented issues: Not applicable

Final thoughts

The concepts put forth in the book “Clean Code” represent a useful set of guidelines for understanding coding best practices.  To the extent that models map onto code the concepts behind “Clean Code” apply.    However, MBD abstracts many concepts behind coding into a higher level language, placing the clarity and encapsulation of the actual code into the hands of the code generation tool.

Side note:

Late in my conversation with the customer, I realized that I was talking to someone from Denmark about smells.  I regret that I did not take the opportunity to make a reference to Hamlet.  (Something is rotten in the state of Denmark)

Image result for hamlet



Fail safe, fail friendly

.I drive a vehicle with an all drive-by wire setup.  Drive-by wire brake, throttle, and PRNDL (the shifting mechanism for those of you not in the Auto Industry (Park, Reverse…)  While as a controls engineer, and an environmentalist, I like both the performance increase and the weight savings to fuel savings that this brings it raises the question, what do you do when the system fails?

Image result for drive by wire throttle body

Primary mode: Fail safe

The first rule of safety critical software (and a break in a vehicle is safety critical) is to fail in a safe fashion.  There are several modes in which a brake can fail, from worst to best

  • Complete sensor failure: on highway
  • Partial sensor failure: on highway
  • Complete sensor failure: parked
  • Partial sensor failure: parked

First, what is a partial failure? A partial failure is when part of, but not all of, a redundant system sends back data that is not in alignment with the other parts.  Standard protocols for drive by wire brakes is to have 3 redundant sensors to determine

Of the four scenarios, the first is the most dangerous and poses an interesting question “what is the fail safe behavior?”  Hard braking could result in a rear end collision.  Failure to brake could result in running into someone.  Of course, this problem is no different from the one found in traditional fully mechanical/hydraulic systems.  For an overview of what to do if this happens, take a look at this article.

Secondary mode: Fail friendly

So what does it mean to “fail friendly?”  In a fail friendly scenario, the objective is for the system to maintain the maximum functionality without putting the user or the device in danger.   In the example of the brake failure, with an all electronic version, the vehicle could allow driving at speeds up to 5 mph.  This mode allows the driver to safely move the vehicle off of roads into a safe parking location.


Final thoughts

The way in which systems fail directly impact the end users experience of the product. Providing the secondary fail friendly mode results in a more positive user experience.


While traceability plays a key role in the software development process for many groups it presents as a high impact burden.  Modern software tools can simplify the traceability process however it all begins with the requirements.

Why is traceability important?

The objective of traceability is to ensure that requirements are met in the final product. Image result for traceability design v mathworksThis is achieved by the creation of traceability “check-ins” at each stage of the development process.  A check-in serves two purposes.  First, they ensure that the design process does not “drift” too far from the requirements.  Second, they provide formal documentation of adherence to the defined development processes.

How do we “check-in?”

Check-ins should be an automated processesImage result for check in where information is cross checked between the current state of the models and the requirements.   If the requirements are written in a testable format than the check in consists of running the tests and a human verification of the test result.  If they are not written in a testable format or the complexity is such that automated testing is not possible then a manual review is required.

Check-in deliverables

The primary deliverable of the check-in is a traceability report.  It documents that at each step in the process the model and related artifacts were validated against the requirements.

Image result for traceability matrix simulink

Final thoughts

Traceability is one of the core activities of a safety critical software design process.  Implementation of automated requirements tracing is greatly simplified in a Model-Based Design environment that includes simulation capabilities.

Design of control algorithms using simulation

My introduction to simulation driven design

My junior year at Virginia Tech I worked in their stability wind tunnel.  I spent one hot summer month building physical models, placing strain gages and pulling together wiring harnesses. Two years later while in graduate school I would write a CFD model in a week that allowed me to simulate the same wings with high accuracy in a wide variety situations.  That simulation enabled me to perform the first 95% of my design through virtual prototyping.  (Note: there are always cases where physical models are required.  The goal with physical modeling is to reduce the number of actual physical prototypes created and test under conditions that are difficult or dangerous to do with an actual device.)

Image result for wind tunnel

Design through simulation versus validation of requirements

In the architecture section of this blog I wrote about the concept of “shell models” and “elaboration”. The concept is simple, the initial model is a “shell.”  It consists of the basic inputs and outputs required for the functioning of the system. Image result for logical step The developer then “elaborates” the model by adding functionality.  With Model-Based Design, an environment with the concept of simulation “built-in” design through simulation is a logical step in the elaboration of the model.

Design simulations versus tests

The confusion in the picture comes in when we try to distinguish between testing to validate requirements versus simulation used in design,

  1. Simulations may have no or an informal infrastructure:  In the formal verification setting a set testing infrastructure is required to ensure consistent validation behavior. By way of contrast, the design scenario seeks to quickly iterate through the design possibilities and is not “locking down” results.
  2. Simulations may have a soft-pass criteria:  In the formal verification setting a “hard-pass” criteria is defined, e.g. under these conditions, the test passes, if not it fails. With the design simulations, the objective of the simulation is to use the trends of the model to guide the design.  Over time some of the simulation tests may be formalized and moved into the verification test suites.

But what counts as a “Simulation”

For the purpose of this article, I am using “simulation” in a wide definition.  At the simplest level, the simulation can be a step input/output response.  Beyond that the use of plant models for scenario driven development.  Image result for roulette tableUse of Monte-Carlo and more advanced DOE methodologies are common for the development of advanced systems

Articles on design through simulation

I would like to end this posting by giving links to a few thoughtful articles that go into greater depth on simulation driven design