Analysis: 'Low cost' rules at Embedded World

E&T finds the embedded systems sector bearing up better than expected.

Everybody acknowledged the seriousness of the general electronics downturn but still found this month's Embedded World conference in Nuremberg to be surprisingly busy. In contrast with recent broad-based shows both in the US and Europe, the event experienced a steady level of traffic on all three days, and occasionally the skills of a fly-half were needed to get from A to B. Bob and weave, son, bob and weave.

However, a couple of caveats are necessary. First, Germany has a far stronger trade-show culture than just about anywhere else in the West. That's why the country seems to have so many cavernous venues.

Second though - and perhaps more important - an embedded systems show intrinsically reflects tough times. A large chunk of the market is about second-tier technologies, the subsystems that enable sexier end-applications and the controls that underpin complex systems (in the automotive and industrial markets).

General demand for more sophisticated engine controls and power management - much of it driven by economic and political concerns - are giving often standardised microcontroller (MCU)-based application kits a boost in terms of profile and demand. Such products have always been priced low (much of the market goes through the component distribution channel) and the margins have always been comparatively thin.

In good times, this can mean that the embedded community looks on other segments of electronics with envy. Today, however, it appears to be in something of a haven.

The big announcements at Embedded World certainly reflected this. Almost all were about matching performance appropriate to a tough market with cost efficiency. For example, STMicroelectronics (ST) placed its latest 8-bit MCUs, the STM8S, centre-stage.

The 8-bit space has been under assault recently, with rival vendors looking to get customers to trade up to 16-bit and 32-bit chips. ST's response is a set of devices that not only take benefit from a process shrink to 130nm, but which also offer improved power and performance thanks to advanced design techniques in terms of a three-stage pipeline and a new clock controller.

Closing the hood, ST is also touting the 8-bit chips for a whole range of devices, and an offer of "low-cost" capacitive touch sensing, the kind of thing that could make your MP3 player feel just like an iPod.

Meanwhile, Infineon took the application kit route to promote its strengths in motor controls. MCU-powered field-oriented control (FOC) can improve a motor's efficiency by up to 95 per cent. In broader terms, the company said that a more efficient approach to variable speed drives on industrial plant could save 22 million terawatt-hours in energy consumption.

Its products then - including its DAvE drive for optimising an FOC-based system - may be going through the distribution/low-cost channel but the numbers it can talk about, even during a recession, are very big indeed. And, as with ST, Infineon will give you a 32-bit device, but everything is scaleable up and down the scale from 8-bit.

ARM announced its ultra low power Cortex M0 processor about a week before Embedded World. Show announcements generally concentrated on MCUs based on the company's higher-end M3 (with the latest additions on view from both Luminary Micro and ST, to name but two), but interest was more about when NXP Semiconductors - the first licensee - would start to deliver M0 chips.

M0 stands to represent - and, in a good way - what looks to be an era of 'just-good-enough' electronics. It is not the best in its family, but it has an 8-bit MCU price-point, has 32-bit resolution but sits in a 16-bit space. What's more, ARM and its partners are chucking the proverbial shedload of support tools at it - most of which are migrations of existing software and IP.

The exhibitors will hope that they didn't just have meetings - although that was better than what many have experienced - but discussions that will turn into leads. That will be the proof-positive that the just-good-enough model will help them ride out the downturn.

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