Last year, the Raspberry Pi Foundation delivered the third model of its professional-grade Raspberry Pi board. The Compute Module 3 (CM3) is a testament to the accelerating use of the commercial-grade version of the board in a broad cross-section of products that range from industrial automation and control to consumer electronics.
You might not have heard about this widespread adoption, however. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is restrictive about the use of the Raspberry Pi trademark in commercial marketing and promotion. Meanwhile, many companies consider their use of Pi to be competitive information and decline to talk about it. Consequently, professional applications of Raspberry Pi tend to remain unpublicized. However, there are certainly hundreds of examples, and maybe thousands, with more coming. The Raspberry Pi Foundation said that roughly one-third of the Pis that it sells go to commercial applications.
Raspberry Pi resellers are seeing increased demand as well. “In a given month, the Compute Module will be 5% to 10% of our Raspberry Pi sales,” said Peter Wenzel, global director of Raspberry Pi products at element 14, one of the leading purveyors of Raspberry Pi products. “It’s growing, and we can’t forecast its growth enough.”
Raspberry Pi was created for children to learn basic digital system design skills. The idea was to specify a basic board that would be simple but not so rudimentary as to be a toy. Raspberry Pi boards are designed to have more than adequate computation power to support a wide range of real-world applications as well as to be inexpensive and easy to use. It just so happens that those are some of the requirements for many commercial applications — so why not use it for commercial applications?
At first, it wasn’t possible due to a lack of popular communications options and on-board memory, an inability to operate across the full temperature range typically specified for commercial products, and minimal flexibility for modification.
All of that began to change with the introduction of the first Compute Module in 2014. It had some drawbacks for professional use, including the fact that the Broadcom chip ran a little too hot. But those drawbacks were addressed by the time CM3 was introduced in 2017. The Raspberry Pi 3 had become quite attractive for professional and/or commercial use.
“So, what actually gives the Raspberry Pi 3 a significant leg up over smaller microcontroller boards? The key is the Broadcom BCM2837 — a microprocessor that has some unique advantages,” according to Nick Powers , an application marketing manager at Arrow Electronics, who evaluated the product when it came out. “The actual core is an Arm Cortex-A53, which features heaps of cache and floating-point units that help to speed up data manipulation, especially in advanced mathematics and graphics.”
There are a couple of versions of the CM3. They both use Broadcom’s BCM2837 processor at up to 1.2 GHz and pack 1 GB of RAM. The standard version has 4 GB of on-board eMMC flash, while the Lite version is more stripped down, including bringing the SD card interface to the module pins so that users can connect to an eMMC or SD card of their choice, according to the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The versions are priced at $30 and $25, respectively.
Newark element14 (a subsidiary of Premier Farnell) sells the boards as specified by Raspberry Pi and also creates variations. Its most recent is the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ , built on a new quad-core Broadcom BCM2837 64-bit processor running at 1.4 GHz and featuring wireless connectivity (IEEE 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2) and better thermal management, among other changes. Model Bs are standard products, but the company will also build custom variations specified by customers. Wenzel said that Newark element14 has the only license to do that. Newark element14 recently began marketing a development kit as well.
The combination of technical merits and low price make the CM3 attractive, but sometimes it’s just the ease of use. Because it’s so easy to use, explained Wenzel, it’s often considered for projects that need to be completed quickly. One of the 10 largest banks in the U.S. chose Raspberry Pi for precisely that reason when it wanted to upgrade its ATMs to support a new feature. Wenzel declined to identify the bank in part because it ultimately decided against the upgrade for business and not for technical reasons.
Raspberry Pi was invented for kids, and even if there is a version aimed at professionals, it’s a bit of disservice to not describe the range of applications as fun bordering on bonkers.
The survey of commercial uses of Raspberry Pi that follows includes examples provided by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Newark element14, Comfile Technology, and Kunbus.