Last week, while attending the 2013 DESIGN West/Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose we presented the VDC Research Embeddy Award for the best new embedded hardware product. As part of the selection process the VDC Embedded Hardware team met with more than 30 companies to discuss product announcements and a variety of industry trends impacting the embedded hardware market today. Before we get to the award winner, we will start with a few highlights from some of the suppliers we spoke to at the show.
Connectivity enhanced Microcontrollers: Microchip usually makes several significant embedded hardware announcements at DW/ESC shows and this year was no exception. VDC was given a detailed briefing on several new connectivity modules that OEMs can use for many applications. If the OEM's product already has a computing element, the new microchip modules are designed to easily integrate the needed Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, MiWi, and/or proprietary network types. If the OEM’s engineers have not settled on a processing element to interface with sensors or product components they might consider the modules that include integrated MCUs. The good news for OEMs is that the selection of any of these Microchip modules will likely eliminate product testing for overall FCC compliance and production test and calibration. Microchip demonstrated how a lighting OEM might integrate these new products in a way that would enable lighting products to be controlled in M2M applications including network based portals and authenticated mobile devices.
Secure M2M: Our next stop at the show was with Icon Labs and they were highlighting a new barrier/firewall device that was well suited for supporting M2M on legacy equipment in industrial applications. The unit we saw was targeted for a market price of ~$1K but included many security elements using Intel Atom processing and embedded software from Icon Labs’ partners including Wind River, ZiLog, McAfee, and Green Hills.
New Rugged Handheld Devices: At our next stop, the VDC EHW team was greeted by the enthusiastic ADLINK team and they had every right to be that way. There were a number of interesting products in many categories. We were particularly interested in ADLINK’s foray into the enterprise handheld device market with the IMX-9000 which includes barcode reading capability, multiple connectivity protocols all contained in a stylish but rugged enclosure that is said to withstand IP67 and 1.5M drop tests. While at the ADLINK booth, we saw the new Advanced TCA processor blade. The new aTCA-9300 is well suited for media delivery platforms because of the need for scalable processing to deliver content in the needed forms and formats for the transmission and end use by the target device.
Media Processing: As a bit of background, it is not feasible to store content in all forms and formats suitable for delivery to, and use by, the huge numbers of things used to view them. This means that content has to be converted on the fly and that means there is a huge need for embedded processing products to perform these tasks.
ASICs and FPGAs: We received updates on the latest developments in the world of ASICs and FPGAs. We spoke with Altera who divides the majority of the FPGA market with Xilinx. Altera provided an update on the SoC FPGA line that was introduced in late 2011. The Cyclone V and Arria V FPGAs incorporate ARM CPU cores with FPGAs to allow OEMs to develop more powerful and flexible product designs while economizing on needed circuit board space. One advantage that FPGAs normally have over ASICS is that they take less time to design and can be brought into production faster. If design issues are discovered at later stages, they can be corrected faster and at lower cost. The Altera inclusion of ARM cores allows OEM engineers to leverage many development tools that are available for ARM and that theoretically increases the advantages over traditional ASIC processes.
On the ASIC side, we received a briefing by Triad Semiconductor on their ViaASICs and the associated development toolset ViaDesigner. The goals of these two products is to eliminate the time-to-market and development cost advantages of FPGA products over ASICs. The process works like this. In the semiconductor fab, the wafers are started and arrays of circuits and functional blocks are laid down but not configured and interconnected. These are then stocked until needed. An OEM engineer then uses the development tool that determines how the Triad chip will be configured. The data from that tool is sent to the fab and they create the mask(s) needed to for the next steps in the wafer creation process. The next steps lay down the layers needed for connecting the functional blocks creating a finished product.
New SBCs: Advantech highlighted a new compact design Single Board Computer (SBC) called the MIO-5290 that can be ordered with 3rd Gen Intel i3 or i7 processors. With its ability to drive 3 independent displays with intense graphics, and the availability to add various I/O modules to customize the product, the MIO-5290 is well suited for many applications such as intelligent signage. The VDC team identified the MIO as one of the finalists in the Embeddy Award selection process.
Another finalist in the Embeddy Award selection process was WinSystems SBC35C series of products that utilize the 800 Mhz Freescale i.MX 6Q Industrial Processor. There were several things that impressed us. The SBC35C board layout was very well thought out with industrial bus connections all on one side and the other needed connections on the other. The SBC35C can be run with Power over Ethernet (PoE) or a single DC source. The last thing that impressed us was the fact that the WinSystems team was showing their product the proper respect by handling the demo SBC with an anti-static bag. If they do that on the show floor, you can expect that their production and test process is also using similar precautions.
2013 Hardware Embeddy Winner: And now, without further ado, the winner of the VDC Hardware Embeddy award for the 2013 Design West / ESC show was AMD for their new G-Series family of SoC processors that we believe will make a big impact in the embedded hardware market.