The various trends in embedded systems design and development include greater system integration at both chip and board level, more connected devices, and a ‘virtual’ revolution. This article looks at some of those trends.
Growing systems integration at both chip and board-level – what are some of the key aspects of this?
Any embedded design today is significantly different from those twenty years ago. Firstly, connectivity is paramount, which adds extra functionality and emphasizes security. Also, as users, the level of interaction we expect from an embedded system is high, whether with our smart devices, in our car, or at work. No longer will a couple of LEDs suffice; some form of sleek display, no matter how small, and a functionally rich user interface, have become the norm. These two features alone – connectivity and a display – introduce many conflicting design constraints, such as minimal size and power consumption.
Engineering teams find themselves with a tight set of requirements in the marketing specification of a new product, and the competitive nature of markets today dictate short time-to-market deadlines. However, engineers are adept at finding solutions to challenges, and devices and modules integrating multiple functions offer a viable approach. Take wireless connectivity: RF engineering is a specialist skill and designing a wireless transceiver and a matching antenna is complicated. Type approval to regional wireless standards is also required. The design tasks, testing and certification introduce high costs and time delays. Opting for a pre-certified wireless module offers an attractive proposition. Saving both time and budget, integrating a wireless module speeds the development schedule considerably. Alternatively, wireless systems on chip (SoCs) provide high levels of design flexibility and customization, reducing design time although requiring testing, certification and approval.
DC/DC converters are another excellent example of board-level integration. They provide a dense, thermally optimized power conversion function in a compact footprint ideal for today’s space-constrained designs. An engineering team would take years of design effort to replicate the characteristics and size of a DC/DC converter module. Selecting one is not only a prudent choice but, like using any highly integrated module or SoC, simplifies the bill of materials and associated logistics.
From the component suppliers’ perspective, integrating many functions into a single SoC or module allows them to differentiate themselves from competitors. Recognizing the challenges engineering teams have and responding with integrated products provides a compelling solution. Integrated solutions also encourage adoption and design-in, also crucial factors for suppliers. A recent example is TI’s mmWave radar module with an antenna-in-package. For engineers looking to incorporate mmWave radar features into a new product, the TI solution offers a rapid prototyping method without needing to endure its development complexities.
Trends in connected devices: what does an embedded system designer need to look out for?
Our world today is a connected one. We collect, transfer, and analyze colossal amounts of data every second, from ocean buoys, smartwatches, and industrial IoT edge sensors. From a user’s perspective, we take connectivity for granted and expect it to work reliably. For the engineering team, however, provisioning wireless connectivity opens a checklist of requirements. Questions include the range, how much data, how frequently, interoperability, and how the application will be powered. In turn, this helps guide the choice of wireless protocol and topology.
As the diversity of use cases for connected devices increase, so does the need for new wireless methods that are optimal for the application. Wi-Fi, for example, is perfect for sending large amounts of data at very high speeds, but it is power-hungry. Recently, new protocols such as Wi-SUN and Wi-Fi HaLow offer a solution for large scale smart city and utility metering deployments.
Keeping up with trends and new technologies is a constant challenge for embedded developers. Mindful of this need, Mouser spends considerable resources researching material that engineers will find helpful, identifying all aspects of embedded development, and project-based worked examples. This is intended to assist engineers in understanding the options available to them and the use cases they suit.
In addition to supporting the engineering community, we also provide informative resources for buyers so they can better understand the challenges their engineering colleagues face. An example is the Technology Guide for Component Buyers. For example, the microcontrollers section helps answer the question, “With so many microcontrollers available, what criteria are used to choose the best solution for a project?”. Clearly in this example, the device must meet the basic requirements of the application in terms of performance, memory size, power consumption and integrated peripherals. That still leaves a wide choice of vendors with suitable products.
In that case, other factors to consider include the availability and cost of the software tools. To provide a competitive advantage, some semiconductor vendors invest in developing integrated development environments (IDEs), offering these to customers free of charge, but there is also a wide range of third-party IDEs available. In some cases, the requirement for software compatibility will limit the choice of microcontroller. For example, if the device needs to run applications written for either Arm processors or the Intel x86 family, the choice is limited to compatible processors.
In the end, the decision of which microcontroller may come down to something as simple as which hardware and software the engineering team has used the most. Previous expertise with a vendor’s microcontroller can help reduce development time, and the risk of technical issues arising.
How is the future of embedded development being impacted by the virtual revolution?
The pandemic has accelerated virtual working for us all, and embedded development is no exception. The concept of geographically dispersed development was around long before recent events, becoming commonplace for enterprise application development. The tasks associated with embedded development suit collaborative development. Online tools like GitHub and PlatformIO provide all the resources an embedded developer needs to code, collaborate, and debug. Many of the traditional IDE suppliers are also updating their toolchains to add collaboration and bring them online. Semiconductor and platform suppliers have begun to deploy their IDE and toolchain ‘in the cloud’, for example, Microchip’s MP Lab X, and Arduino’s ‘Arduino Editor’. With many hardware challenges to tackle, such as keeping power consumption low and acceptable wake-up response, development teams have turned to specialists with in-depth knowledge, no matter where in the world they are located.
Keeping aware of technology trends, and talking with our suppliers, we also see the rise in simple, “low code” pseudo languages such as Node-RED that supplement traditional embedded development languages like C.
Embedded developers are experiencing transformation in the way they conduct their craft and are being stretched with implementing new features, such as TinyML. TinyML brings machine learning to minimal resource, low power microcontrollers and is gaining popularity exceptionally quickly. Online development resources like Edge Impulse are simplifying the tasks significantly. TinyML is also an example of Mouser’s commitment to keeping embedded developers aware of upcoming trends and technologies.
Virtual embedded development recently took a step forward with the launch of MikroE’s Planet Debug service that enables completely remote hardware debugging of an embedded development platform, and we’re sure this is just the start!
Mark Patrick is Mouser Electronics’ technical marketing manager for EMEA, responsible for the creation and circulation of technical content within the region to support, inform and inspire its engineering audience. Prior to this, Patrick was part of the EMEA supplier marketing team and played a vital role in establishing and developing relationships with key manufacturing partners. His previous roles include eight years at Texas Instruments in applications support and technical sales. A “hands-on” engineer at heart, with a passion for vintage synthesizers and motorcycles, he thinks nothing of carrying out repairs on either. Patrick holds a first-class honors degree in electronics engineering from Coventry University in the U.K.
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