MADISON, Wis. — Texas Instruments unveiled on Tuesday its new generation of industrial microprocessors, Sitara AM6x. TI calls it “the industry’s first multi-protocol gigabit time-sensitive networking (TSN)-enabled processor family.”
“If you’ve followed TI over the last few years, you’ve noticed that we’ve dramatically shifted our business focus to industrial and automotive markets,” said Adrian Valenzuela, TI’s director of marketing for Sitara processors, in an interview with EE Times. “Our goal is to be the world leader in these applications.”
Indeed, in a recent Q3 earnings conference call, TI’s head of investor relations, David Pahl, said, “We continue to focus our strategy on the industrial and automotive markets, where we have been allocating our capital and driving initiatives to strengthen our position. This is based on a belief that industrial and automotive will be the fastest growing semiconductor markets. They have increasing semiconductor content. And these markets provide diversity and longevity. All of this translates to a high terminal value of our portfolio.”
The upshot of this claim is that TI is rolling the dice on its new Sitara AM6x family, treating the processor as key to TI’s future in the industrial market.
Given that TI already has a large product portfolio of industrial processors, how is AM6x different? Valenzuela said, “Two things: First, Sitara AM6x is the first gigabit-capable processor for time-sensitive networking. Second, we put a huge emphasis on reliability and functional safety.”
The Sitara AM6x processor family is designed to meet evolving Industry 4.0 demands.
Industry 4.0, however, is a loosely defined term that’s both overused and nebulous. Acknowledging that “pretty soon, everything will be described as ‘Industry 4.0,’” Valenzuela stressed two crucial requirements demanded in Industry 4.0 — namely, reliability and low latency.
In the industrial IoT market, classic factory floors are growing more “heavily automated and heavily connected — where wired is preferred more than wireless due to reliability issues,” noted Valenzuela. In such a setting, factory managers are demanding a connectivity network better than existing IEEE standards like TCP/IP Ethernet that lack the necessary reliability or determinism.
Picture a 1,000-pound robotic arm building a 3,000-pound vehicle, said Valenzuela. “You want things to work consistently to the level of a precision with a very low level of latency and guaranteed determinism.”
For this reason, many players in the industrial market have developed proprietary industrial network communication protocols and implemented them on factory floors. Such proprietary industrial protocols include EtherCAT, PROFINET, HSR/PRP, and OPC-UA.
If TI intends to lead the industrial market, it must be prepared to play the long game.
While it touts the Sitara AM6x with IEEE standards-based TSN protocols for the first time, TI adds that the same processor also supports existing legacy industrial communication protocols. Valenzuela told us that the processor comes with “a dedicated hardware accelerator” that can be configured to support multiple industrial protocols without hardware redesign. If a manager wants to build a factory floor using a single network with both Ethernet and real-time data traffic, Valenzuela affirmed that, “yes, they can mix and match” by using Sitara AM6x.
Unlike 10/100 Ethernet standards, TSN, an extension of IEEE standards to bring deterministic services, is capable of gigabit rates of communication on the industrial network.
Valenzuela acknowledged that factory managers might prefer sticking to their own industrial network communication protocols rather than jumping to TSN right away. Legacy protocols such as EtherCAT, PROFINET, and HSR/PRP will be around “for decades to come, and there is nothing wrong with them,” he noted. In fact, “many [factory managers] may not change.”
However, once machine vision arrives on the factory floor, managers will find dramatic increases in requirements for bandwidth. “They will need gigabit bandwidth,” said Valenzuela.
Robots or autonomously guided vehicles on the factory floor pushing video streams out to other nodes on the network, not to the cloud, will trigger an urgent need for bandwidth. Picture a robot docking to upload video — right now — for deep learning or analysis. “You need the speed.”
Asked about TSN standards versus proprietary protocols, Valenzuela said that in addition to the higher speed that TSN could offer, “the standards-based protocols are future-proof. It is the IEEE standard. It is not likely to change, and it will be supported by many people.”
He added, “On the other hand, with conventional proprietary protocols, you need to license your technology out — which could involve licensing fees — to insure interoperability among different systems” attached to the industrial network on factory floors.