Small is beautiful once again in embedded systems

By Chris Edwards |  No Comments  |  Posted: September 26, 2012
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Embedded-processor vendors are rediscovering the beauty of the small customer – reversing the trend that the bigger suppliers put in place in the mid-1990s as the internet and mobile-phone booms got into full swing.

For the past decade, Texas Instruments used its position as the supplier of choice to major phone makers to launch industrial variants of its ARM-plus-DSP microcontrollers. Even if they wanted to, industrial customers could not buy the communications parts – they were strictly for the big fish. Now that strategy is being kicked to the curb as the company pulls back from the massive – and massively unprofitable if you are not the number one or two supplier – market for mobile processors. The fall-back strategy would appear to be the portfolio of ARM-based products that arrived following the purchase of Luminary Micro.

Freescale Semiconductor is further through this cycle and has taken its ambitions in the less glamorous but potentially lucrative multimarket sector one step further. Automotive, industrial and multimarket general manager Geoff Lees, who joined Freescale from NXP Semiconductor and who helped build up that vendor’s position in 32bit microcontrollers, was keen to stress at the launch of ARM-based Kinetis L family how much stock Freescale has put into distribution to ensure parts are available from day one. It’s a far cry from launches that typified the noughties when a handful of key customers – or just lead partner – got the early stock and no-one else got a sniff of those components for months.

“We believe we have inventory in every distribution house,” said Lees. “Seventeen thousand Freedom platforms have been pre-ordered. We have taken great care to make sure product is in every distributor. We wanted to avoid situations where we had tools but it would take time to ramp up volume.

Quick-hit development cycles have encouraged Freescale to make sure it can support high volumes soon after a launch, said Lees: “We are seeing applications where in a month or two the customers will be shipping volume using parts that only started shipping today. If we don’t have volume and prove that we do, they won’t use us.”

Part of the plan for quick turnaround design-ins is to make the most of off-the-shelf platforms originally aimed at the hobbyist market but which are now making their way into the hands of low- to medium- volume industrial and commercial users.

Freescale already has the Tower System in place for which the company and its distributors have put together ready-made hardware. The company has decided to build processor boards based around the Arduino platform.

“I’ve seen a lot of Arduino usage and not just hobbyist, but prototyping and consultancy. There is a huge amount of development using Arduino in audio,” said Lees. “And the Maker Faire movement is incredibly exciting. Guys built a satellite based on Arduino and got that into space. This is part of our desire to approach a wider customer base than in the past.”

Although the L series parts – which are based on the ARM Cortex-M0+ – are aimed squarely at replacing today’s 8bit parts, Freescale is looking at potentially large memory sizes for the family – up to the 512Kbyte level. For the L series, the company is using its thin-film storage (TFS) flash technology rather than a traditional split-gate flash, which is typically higher in terms of bit density.

“TFS has a lot of advantages in low leakage as well as very stable bit storage over time,” Lees claimed. “It’s one of the reasons why we can get total dynamic power lower. I often get questions whether building a family of products around a core like the M0 means no differentiation. Most vendors use split-gate flash, but they have higher power consumption requirements and it’s hard to get low-leakage products.”

Today TFS works on the 90nm process. “We have started work on 40nm TFS implementation,” Lees said.

The current TFS implementation is focused on the industrial and consumer markets but Freescale plans to qualify the memory for the bigger-customer domain of automotive because of the lower power consumption. “The inexorable rise of electronics has taken vehicles over their power budgets. Their design teams have been tasked with reducing onboard power consumption by half without raising the price.”

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