At the heart of everything, from toasters to high-end imaging equipment, embedded processors-whether 8-, 16-, or 64-bit-are much in demand. As capacity holds steady, OEM buyers will find plenty of choices, low prices, and vendors eager to work with them to earn design wins. Software that aids portability, such as Java, and the move to 0.25- and 0.18-micron processes will enable one chip to control more functions than ever before in a wider range of electronic devices.
While embedded-processor prices have fallen during the past year, they will continue to be buffered from much of the severe price erosion that has plagued other types of semiconductors, according to industry observers.
Prices for 32- and 64-bit microprocessors in high-volume embedded applications are well under $20 to $25, said Anthony Massimini, an analyst at Semico Research Corp., Phoenix. "Products for telecommunications and consumer applications are very low-priced. You can get more processing power and more integrated features for the same price than last year," he said.
But a bigger consideration than price is time-to-market for many OEMs, Massimini said. To avoid technical problems that may cause a scheduling slip, purchasers should be especially concerned with a vendor's delivery and quality record, as well as its software support for the chosen architecture, he said.
"We look at it from a long-term perspective in terms of start-up costs and recurring costs over time, and try to figure out who's going to offer us the best value," said Patrick Ferrara, senior buyer, strategic semiconductors, at Hughes Network Systems, Germantown, Md.
"Some suppliers may have a very good price," he said. "But we know that their deliverability is not very good. That is a big concern for us."
In cases where Hughes has concerns with suppliers but still needs to use them because of their technical abilities, Ferrara said the company looks for alternatives.
Among the features OEMs should look for in an embedded-processor supplier are verifiable past performance; processor designs that can be used with low-end, midrange, or high-end products; a solid roadmap for the future; and the ability to ramp up production to suitable levels, executives said.
The supplier selection pro- cess usually depends on these reliability factors as long as the embedded processor meets basic design criteria, said Phil Bourekas, director of marketing for the microprocessor division at Integrated Device Technology Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.
The decision to use a particular architecture and vendor is made at the highest management levels, and once chosen, all the customer's software development and training is locked in, according to Ray Newstead, associate vice president and general manager for microprocessor products at Santa Clara-based NEC Electronics Inc. Thus, vendors need staying power.
"It's very important to think ahead, as much as five years out," he said.
Software support for the processor is crucial for a successful product. For most projects, software drives the schedule, so it behooves engineers and purchasers to engage a company that understands software, said Douglas Maas, market development manager at Sun Microsystems Inc., San Jose, Calif.
"You don't buy software in tubes or trays, but it is a facet of what goes into the system," Bourekas said, adding that the task of putting together such a system includes making sure software support is available for the microprocessor. This can entail buying or licensing third-party software, so it's best left to procurement professionals, who, as experts at negotiation, can obtain the best terms, he said.
At a minimum, operating-system support through third parties or direct from the MPU supplier should be available, as well as good application software such as libraries for specific architectures or protocol stacks for communications environments, Maas said.
Using Java with 32- and 64-bit microprocessors will have a tremendous affect on reducing time-to-market and increasing the portability of the MPU, Bourekas said. With it, these more powerful embedded processors can have more than one or two repetitive control functions, as did older 4-, 8-, and 16-bit chips. Java enables software to run across a wide variety of platforms without rewrites, saving precious development time, according to Maas.
Because an embedded microprocessor is one of the most important elements in a system, purchasers need to stay keenly aware of vendor roadmaps and technical capabilities. Customers tend to have close relationships with their embedded-processor partners, and demand services such as work-in-process reports, as well as fabrication-process, packaging, and shipping updates, said Farzad Zarriankar, director of ASIC marketing and business development for System LSI at Samsung Semiconductor Inc., Santa Clara.
"There's a strong desire to engage with fewer companies on a deeper level, to find true partners rather than vendors," Sun's Maas said.
In the early design stages of a project, Hughes Network Systems uses an engineering team consisting of representatives from engineering, planning, purchasing, and business management, Ferrara said. The team relies on each member to lend his expertise as needed, he added.
"If the engineers are designing a circuit and thinking about a couple of different suppliers," Ferrara said, "I will steer them toward a supplier that I know has a good track record and that we have a tight relationship with."
An important part of a purchaser's job is prenegotiating what the processor's price will be in nine months to a year, when the OEM finally buys it, according to IDT's Bourekas. Buyers also need to ensure that supply will be available over the life of the product, he said.
Embedded processors are driven by a traditional set of design criteria- performance, power consumption, and die size-that affect cost and flexibility, said Reynette Au, vice president of marketing at ARM Ltd., Los Gatos, Calif. If the design specifies which of the three are priorities, buyers can match them with vendors' offerings, she said.
Many of Samsung's customers involve their purchasers early, often at the specification stage, so any proposal submitted is reviewed by both engineering and purchasing, and must satisfy both groups' requirements, Zarriankar said.
Often, customer and supplier will write a joint specification that incorporates information on standard embedded microprocessors, plus customer-designed logic, said Neil Bullock, marketing manager for embedded systems/ASICs at Mitel Semiconductor Inc., San Jose. This forms the framework of the design activity, as well as an ongoing relationship in which purchasers, engineers, and vendors can exchange ideas, even when no particular design is being built, he said.
"We're often designing parts that are only currently in development by the semiconductor manufacturer," Hughes' Ferrara said. "We rely on its preliminary data sheets and design team to help us craft a product around their device."
Purchasers will frequently find background information and data sheets for standard embedded processors on a vendor's Web site, executives said. Microchip Technology Inc. will soon offer engineers microprocessor samples electronically, said Ronald Cates, strategic marketing manager at the Chandler, Ariz., company. And some OEM purchasers may scour distributors' Web sites in the midst of a parts shortage, Ferrara said.
Many major OEM customers share forecasts and place orders with their MPU
suppliers electronically, executives said. In fact, Hughes has launched an initiative to make its major suppliers EDI-ready, Ferrara said. But some things-such as initial implementation of the design, architectural analysis, and application support-must be resolved face-to-face with the OEM at a design center, Zarriankar said.
Most executives agree, however, that the Internet's role in the buying and selling of embedded MPUs will only grow. know"More and more order exchange and tracking will be handled over the Internet," Sun Microsystems' Maas said. "It will be a standard way of business going forward."