Chip vendors know they can cater to the huge embedded market with many more divergent chips than might be pitched to, say, the mobile markets for iPods, iPads and notebook computers. There has been an explosion of embedded applications in the automotive, industrial and medical markets, and even in consumer white goods such as refrigerators, washers and microwave ovens. Not only does embedded system design offer a wealth of possibilities, but many embedded designs can forgo the added expense of leading-edge microcontrollers or microprocessors. The sheer volumes of chips used in embedded systems make an embedded-market strategy a must for silicon vendors.
Designers of embedded systems have their own requirements. UBM Electronics’ just-released 2012 Embedded Market Survey sheds light on designers’ requirements for chips, tools and support. Five points stand out:
• The top five areas of interest to embedded designers are chip technology, time-to-market, design/ development process, global markets and outsourcing (both domestically and overseas).
• Current embedded projects contain a single microprocessor/microcontroller (cited by 53 percent of respondents); two processors/microcontrollers (25 percent); or three to five MPUs/MCUs (16 percent).
• The average processor clock rate was 425 MHz in the 2012 survey, up from 291 MHz in 2011.
• There is an almost even split between those respondents who used the same processor on their last project (45 percent, of whom 59 percent were happy with their current supplier) and those who switched to a new processor (55 percent, of whom 46 percent did so for better features).
• Respondents believe the ecosystem surrounding the chip (software, tools and support) is twice as important as the chip itself. In order, the ecosystems from Texas Instruments, Freescale, Microchip, ARM, Atmel and Intel command the highest grades. In the 2012 survey, however, STMicroelectronics was ranked fifth, on par with Atmel, among the providers of the processors that respondents considered using on their next project.
As in 2011, the most important factors in choosing a processor are the software development tools available and the chip’s performance.
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Among the industry’s embedded advocacy groups, the Embedded Vision Alliance (EVA) stands out for taking on the task of using powerful, low-cost, energy-efficient processors. Members Advanced Micro Devices, Analog Devices, CEVA, Freescale Semiconductor, Intel, Maxim, Nvidia, TI and Xilinx are addressing embedded vision applications as platforms consisting of devices and design tools. “Processor vendors are beginning to focus on embedded vision applications,” said Jeff Bier, founder of EVA and president of Berkeley Design Technology Inc. Read his commentary here.
On the more traditional embedded system design path are real-time-operating-system (RTOS) vendors such as QNX, which “has focused on creating a real-time software platform that can scale from the low end to the high end and that customers can easily extend for specific requirements,” said Grant Courville, the company’s director of product management. For RTOS vendors, working with chip vendors means reaching as many application levels as possible.
Machine-to-machine devices—which connect everything, everywhere—have huge ramifications for safety, security and dependability, Courville said; as a result, “M2M devices will need to be built on proven platforms.”
Courville said QNX is “working closely with our ecosystem partners to deliver a full M2M solution, including automated over-the-air updates and dramatically expanded wireless capabilities." EE Times asked ten semiconductor vendors to define their embedded strategies. Read their replies.