Recognizing technology’s inflections
The embedded-processor market is experiencing a lot of activity. Traditional 8- and 16-bit processor vendors are adding small 32-bit processors to their product lineups, and there is a lot of interest in small 32-bit processors, such as the Cortex M3 and M0 processors from ARM. NXP is the lead licensee for the ARM Cortex-M0 core—the most rapidly adopted core in ARM’s history. Pierre-Yves Lesaicherre, senior vice president and general manager for NXP Semiconductors’ microcontrollers and logic business lines, recently discussed the microcontroller market with EDN.
What is your impression of the current embedded-processor market?
The embedded market has evolved over the last 30-plus years. Suppliers with proprietary architectures have steadily built positions and niches in many evolving application segments. However, over the last few years, there has been an increasing momentum toward the adoption of the ARM architecture and the ever-widening software and development ecosystem that can be harnessed to speed the development cycle and to reduce development costs. While the 8- and 16-bit markets have stopped growing or are in decline, the 32-bit market is now the fastest-growing segment of the overall microcontroller market. As a result, most microcontroller vendors are now focusing their R&D innovation and marketing effort on new 32-bit solutions, with the ARM architecture gaining increasing importance in the low range to midrange of the 32-bit market.
How and why is the embedded-processor market changing?
Although the embedded processor was once just the processing engine, we now have differentiated application solutions and more application-centric processors that incorporate all the peripherals and resources required for a certain application or vertical segment of the market, such as e-metering, white goods, motor control, and medical. In addition, the software development and infrastructure have become major drivers and key decision factors in customer project and life cycle. Embedded developers often value a strong ecosystem and support infrastructure as importantly as the performance of the microcontroller when making their processor and vendor selection.
What applications are most affecting or affected by these emerging changes?
Most industrial applications connected to energy efficiency, renewable energy, metering, motor and power control, and sensor interfacing are moving from bit-oriented control solutions—that is, 8 bits—toward math-intensive, graphical, and touch-controlled user interfaces. There is a growing need for much more interconnected control between units and nodes and within the home, building, and factory floors. With R&D budgets stagnating or even decreasing and shortening time-to-market requirements, embedded developers look for processors that better fit the needs of their applications, and they have to rely on a strong ecosystem, support, and infrastructure to speed up their development and keep innovation costs at a reasonable level.
How do you see development tools maturing and changing?
The customer base for the embedded space is expanding. A single development environment can no longer meet the demands of this fragmented user base. For instance, NXP sees four distinct groups of users we need to serve. [First are] the traditional embedded developers. These customers are well-served by the traditional tool manufacturers, such as Keil, IAR, and others. The customers are highly skilled in the art of writing embedded code and take great pride in building the most out of everything a microcontroller has to offer, even if it means getting down to the bits, bytes, and register-level details. The customers are used to the IDEs [integrated device environments] and compilers and can count on these tool manufacturers to provide world-class support.
[The second group is] the open-source environment. This group of customers is used to the do-it-yourself method of embedded-application development. These customers are fiercely loyal to the community and have propelled the progress of IDEs such as Eclipse, operating systems such as Linux, and compilers such as GNU and LLVM. When NXP put together the LPCXpresso with Code Red, we tried to seamlessly stitch together all the necessary components from Eclipse and GNU. A lot of attention was also paid to creating and maintaining a very supportive community.
[The third group is the engineers who need] fast-prototype, proof-of-concept tools. Embedded engineers struggle to provide a streamlined way of taking an idea all the way to a demonstration to show the merit of the idea to their marketing or management team. Code size and perfecting the code are top priorities at this stage. A tool such as mbed takes embedded programming a few levels higher: building C/C++ libraries on top of device drivers and exposing the users to a high-level API [application-programming-interface]-driven tool that’s clean and easy to use. Since its introduction, mbed has attracted hobbyists, students, artists, and people from other walks of life in addition to embedded developers. The diverse community of mbed users has contributed enormous amount of precoded APIs and examples. It is now feasible to get proof of concepts in a very short time.
[The last group comprises] PC programmers. With the microcontroller manufacturers providing extremely capable devices with large memory and high performance at very low prices, a new group of users has entered the embedded space. For example, Microsoft’s .NET Micro Framework is now open-sourced and community-supported. Users can program with C# without the need to know the details of the microcontroller. The .NET MWF supports advanced peripherals such as Ethernet and USB [Universal Serial Bus], without the need for dedicated stacks. Programmers simply call these functions within the .NET framework. We are working with TinyCLR on .NET Micro Framework.
What are the challenges facing companies rolling out the M0 and M3 processors?
For many of the reasons I’ve described, right now there are just too many opportunities to address in such a compressed time frame for a single vendor to be able to cover the entire market. Virtually all customers are evaluating whether to either start to migrate to ARM-based solutions or, in many cases in which ARM processors are already in use, whether to adopt an all-ARM infrastructure. With such a rapidly changing market and rapid migration to ARM and more opportunities than a single vendor can serve, one of the critical issues for an M0 and M3 processor vendor is how to rapidly scale up R&D, marketing, and support activities while keeping the operation under control to deliver the required level of performance, quality, and service required by customers.
Where else will there be changes in the embedded-processing market?
We are seeing the emergence of multicore embedded processors, including asymmetric cores, such as M0 and M3 cores in a single device, for example, optimized to serve different parts of the application. There is a growing need for more signal-processing performance in many industrial applications. Automotive systems are changing at an increasing rate, due to the rebalancing of global car markets and the emergence of China, Brazil, and India as large automotive markets, but with different requirements and efficiency standards being enforced by virtually all government bodies. Automotive designs are often now for world markets. Design teams are being established in Asia for both the Asian markets and Western supply. Until now, automotive electronics have proliferated faster than the ability of power systems to supply. Environmental Protection Agency figures, for example, are for base models, and there’s a 15% decrease in fuel efficiency for cars with full option specifications. Evolving standards are forcing a rapid correction, with a 15 to 25% power reduction required on next-generation automotive systems, still with a need for higher performance. New vertical markets are also appearing within the industrial segment, with the rise of metering applications and personal medical systems, for example.