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The Embedded World Keeps on Growing

What is it about Germany? Around the world, electronics companies are pulling back from investing in product promotion, cutting advertising, and withdrawing from exhibiting at trade shows, yet in Germany there are still multiple trade publications, and the embedded world exhibition and conference, rather than shrinking, is growing, with 730 exhibitors at the show, 4 per cent up from last year, and 18,350 visitors, a 16% increase.

This makes a huge show, even when many of the exhibitors occupy only limited floor-space. It is not possible to cover sensibly even a fraction of the announcements that are made there. Helpfully, sometimes you feel that some announcements are the result of a desperate effort to find something to say, rather than providing real insight into a new product or tool. So, take a deep breath and plunge into the equivalent of The Complete Works of Shakespeare in 90 minutes.

In 2009, Intel wasn’t just inside, it was everywhere with every board-maker boasting new families of boards based on the Atom processor. This year, although Intel is still plugging away in this area, ARM was back in contention.

The new ARM Cortex-M4 (see Cortex-M4 Stirs the Soup) was in full view on the Toshiba stand, where they are exploiting the DSP attributes of the M4. Nearly everyone seemed to be using the Cortex-M3 in different ways. Toshiba had a 5V M3-based device for home appliances and industrial applications, alongside an array of other M3 launches, to meet applications ranging from data logging to motor control. Motor control continues to attract a lot of interest, with motors ranging from small brushless DC motors right up to the big jobs used in, for example, transportation. These motors often switch to generators when braking, to feed electricity back into the power source, and NXP, which is looking hard at this end of the market, is developing solutions to ease this transition.

Energy Micro are also using the Cortex-M3 to compete at the low power (or, as they prefer, low energy consumption) end of the processor market, with what they see as the added advantage of a 32-bit architecture and the ARM ecosystem. And, as usual, Silicon Labs and Microchip were also playing the low-power/low-energy card, on 8-bit devices and other architectures. While it is interesting to see just how low power can go, and fun to see the comparison charts they all prepare, I suspect that this is just one factor among others in making a purchase decision.

The new Actel SmartFusion FPGA (link in here to the write up in FPGA and Embedded journals) was formally announced at the show. This combines a Cortex-M3, some neat analog circuitry, and a large amount of flash-based FPGA fabric. It is a measure of how seriously the FPGA companies take the show that Altera and Xilinx also made significant announcements. Xilinx introduced two Spartan-6 platforms, one aimed at industrial imaging applications, the other at industrial automation Ethernet applications. Altera was also looking at the industrial automation network with a family of Cyclone devices, development tools and specialist IP certified by TÜV Rhineland as meeting the high standards need for the new EU industrial automation certification regime. This announcement is treated in more detail over on FPGA Journal this week (Link), but Altera is claiming that the pre-certification the company now offers can potentially save up to two years in the development and approval cycle.

A development cycle measured in years, not months, is a characteristic of certified products, and not just in industrial applications, even though these are now looming ever larger at embedded world. NXP had a very impressive robot arm, and Microsoft was actively promoting those Windows Embedded partners who are developing industrial systems.

Green Hills had two interesting announcements: the INTEGRITY RTOS has received a SWSIL 4 certification against the CENELEC EN 50128 standard for systems for railway control and protection, and Green Hills will be working with train builder Bombardier to develop the safety platform for a train Control Management System, incorporating both INTEGRITY and the MULTI IDE. And Kontron, as part of a raft of announcements, launched a rugged computer for railway applications, based on Intel’s Atom.

Intel, as well as making new Atom announcements including a two-core chip, was also emphasising industrial aspects, including working with Siemens to incorporate multicore processors into the Siematic range of programmable logic controllers.

Programming PLCs has always been an issue, with ladder logic often the technique of choice. As part of a discussion of a wide array of applications, MathWorks was also talking about PLCs. But perhaps more significantly, the company was also talking about how verifying a system through simulation not only provides a faster route to development but also greater understanding of how systems as a whole are actually working.

And moving up from the device to the system level is the theme of many of the tool providers.

One topic that kept surfacing in discussions with the tools people was an increasing focus on the use of Java, particularly in real-time. There appears to be a swing within universities to use Java as a teaching language, displacing C, so there is a skills base to draw on, at the same time as the Ada skills base is, at the least, static and probably shrinking as experienced Ada programmers retire. Aonix, recently folded into Atego along with modelling company Artisan, is, for example, seeing growth in Java, after ploughing a relatively lonely furrow on real-time Java for some years.

While companies are talking about complete tool flows, in Atego’s case building a chain for complex systems through acquisition, others are less ambitious, entering partnerships with other companies to complete the chain. Plotting the partnership relationships between companies would be an interesting if complex task, particularly at the higher level for complex and safety/mission-critical systems. Most of these companies are in the same area of hall 10, and as you go from booth to booth, from requirements specification to modelling to code analysis and through to   life-cycle management, you see different perspectives of the relationships between companies. (Life cycle management kept cropping up – LDRA is partnering with Visure, and Altium is adding a module to their development system.)

Partnerships continue to grow at all levels. For example, Atmel is expanding their QTouch library, for interfacing its range of processors and controllers to its capacitive sensing devices, and it now includes Cortex devices. It has also provided the entire library to Altium, which has incorporated it in the Altium Designer.  IAR has a wide range of tools, but still decided to link with Express Logic to give users of IAR’s Embedded Workbench IDE easy integration with Express Logic’s ThreadX RTOS.

Talking about IAR brings us back to ARM, as every developer of ARM-based devices always mentions IAR and ARM-owned Keil as the two major tool chains, and both IAR and Keil appear to have targeted every device, ARM and non-ARM, that you can think of, and some you never knew existed.

While consumer applications do play a part, industrial applications were very much the bread and butter. And along with transportation and industrial machinery, one phrase kept recurring – Smart Grid. From Grid management, through to the requirements of intelligent utility meters, almost everyone mentioned the Smart Grid at some point. 

I have not discussed lots of announcements, some of them quite interesting, due to lack of space, but how do these fragments build into an overall feeling? Compared to last year, when there was an underlying feeling that we might be on the edge of total catastrophe, this year there was a very positive feeling amongst the exhibitors. While both tools and hardware guys saw 2009 as a tough time, they had very different experiences. The chip people saw sales dry up almost completely, as users and distributors ate their inventory to reduce costs. Now the supply pipeline is refilling, but there is still understandable caution by the semiconductor guys to turn the supply tap back on to full. (Although several people suggested that foundry giant TSMC is now negotiating capacity allocation.)

Tools suppliers also saw sales dry up in some areas, but many reported that, during even the worst of the recession, their customers were looking for advice on refining processes and making greater use of tools, which is beginning to translate into orders for tools and for consultancy services.

The aisles were crowded; most exhibitors seemed to be working very hard, and the smell of pop-corn seemed to be everywhere, with several exhibitors having pop-corn as a give-away. The student day attracted over 700 university students, which should be good news for the future. Toshiba was giving editors the press kits on a 32 Gigabyte USB thumb stick, and the local brewery, Tucher, makes an acceptable Weize Bier. 

This year, things are looking good in the embedded world.

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