feature article
Subscribe Now

Does the World Need a New Microcontroller Family?

Everywhere you look there are microcontrollers. 8-bit, 16-bit and 32-bit; high speed or low power; single or multi-core; and an enormous range of peripherals and I/O. So does the world need another family?  Infineon certainly thinks so.

Their reasoning runs like this. Over the last few years the company has been restructured to concentrate on three key areas, which it calls Energy Efficiency, Mobility and Security. In these areas it addresses specific markets, where it is either the largest player, or number two, with microcontrollers, power components and sensors.

The current microcontroller line-up is headed by the TriCore family. (This has 28% of the 32-bit automotive embedded market, and the claim is that almost every second car has a TriCore. It is also widely used in industrial applications.) Backing this are multiple families of 16-bit microcontrollers, designed around the proprietary C166 core, and 8051-compatible 8-bit controllers. There is a significant performance gap between the fastest members of the 16-bit families and the slowest of the TriCores, and this gap is what Infineon is now bridging with its latest announcement.

The intention is to provide a microcontroller that will find applications in controlling industrial drives, in renewable energy and in industrial automation. This requires high computer performance, mixed signal capacity, connectivity, both within and outside the system, and, usually, complex software. Infineon claims that the XMC4000 meets all these needs, and more.

The first surprise is that, after decades of developing its own processor architectures, the new family is based on the ARM Cortex-M4. While ARM is very widespread in microcontrollers, this is a definite change. Infineon people would not be drawn in to give too much detail about future plans, but they did say that the TriCore will continue, as it is particularly well suited for safety-critical applications. They gave the impression that they haven’t ruled out further ARM-based microcontrollers, and the implication was that these would be replacing/supplementing/whatever the 16-bit products.

The public reason for choosing ARM is the massive ecosystem that is available for ARM products. And, speculating, a secondary reason must be that paying ARM is a lot cheaper, and easier, than developing a new architecture.

Around the core is a wide selection of peripherals. Some are standards-based, such as Ethernet and USB; some are Infineon implementations of general functions, such as ADC and DAC, memory interfaces and CAN bus; and there are also “Infineon state-of-the-art” implementations, such as capacitive touch controllers, a real time clock, and memories. The road map shows a fairly typical matrix of clock speed, memory – both flash and SRAM, and packaging options. Unusually the clock speed is measured at 125ºC, rather than the lower temperatures normal for industrial parts. This is because, in applications like motor control, the microcontroller will be mounted directly on the motor, where temperatures can run very high.

A particular example that was discussed in the launch presentation was inverter control in applications like electric drives and photovoltaic connections to the grid. In both cases the inverter takes in DC and outputs AC. The XMC4000 family typically has 4 fast (3.5 million samples/sec) 12-­bit ADC modules and a ΔΣ demodulator. This allows processing to be carried out off the CPU and removes the need for an extra interface IC. A connection matrix can be set up in software to create direct connections between peripherals.

One unusual feature is the provision of up to six serial channels, whose function, (UART, SPI, I2C etc) is defined in software.

These two examples bring us neatly to the development environment. The XMC4000 is supported by the third generation of DAVE (Digital Application virtual Engineer), Infineon’s free IDE. DAVE is Eclipse-based (so it interworks with a wide range of other development tools) and comes with a free GNU compiler, a debugger, and a loader. The new version also includes a selection of apps for peripherals and applications, which are configured through a graphical user interface. When the apps are configured, DAVE generates code that can be used like a library through an API. Infineon expects that third parties and users will generate further apps.

There were simultaneous announcements from tools and middleware companies, with Atollic, IAR and Hitex all announcing support. And a slide in the presentation also named Altium, Wind River, Keil, iSystem, Lauterbach, Express Logic, Micrium and Segger as supporting the family. While most of these support the existing Infineon parts, the Cortex core makes it far easier for them to create XMC4000 specific products.

I have made a bit of a meal out of this announcement, as it can be seen as important for a number of reasons. Firstly it is another example of the way in which, despite several commentators’ views, ARM is still strengthening its hold in the microcontroller market. There are other cores around, often for niche markets, but ARM is still growing in the main stream. It also seems to me to be yet another blow for 16-bit controllers – their future is going to be even more limited as 8-bits continue to mop up low power and simple applications and 32-bit controllers offer more processing power at equivalent, or better, electrical power consumption. And finally it is an example of how the peripheral options are increasingly complex, moving from external chips to the controller core.

One thought on “Does the World Need a New Microcontroller Family?”

  1. I agree completely with your conclusions. The ARM community is taking over the embedded world by storm. Large semiconductor manufacturers, like Texas Instruments, for example, are standardizing on ARM, which results in a fertile environment for a stronger and stronger ecosystem, which fosters more adopters, etc, etc.

    Tom
    http://www.mitydsp.com

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
Jul 25, 2021
https://youtu.be/cwT7KL4iShY Made on "a tropical beach" Monday: Aerospace and Defense Systems Day...and DAU Tuesday: 75 Years of the Microprocessor Wednesday: CadenceLIVE Cloud Panel... [[ Click on the title to access the full blog on the Cadence Community site. ]]...
Jul 24, 2021
Many modern humans have 2% Neanderthal DNA in our genomes. The combination of these DNA snippets is like having the ghost of a Neanderthal in our midst....
Jul 23, 2021
Synopsys co-CEO Aart de Geus explains how AI has become an important chip design tool as semiconductor companies continue to innovate in the SysMoore Era. The post Entering the SysMoore Era: Synopsys Co-CEO Aart de Geus on the Need for AI-Designed Chips appeared first on Fro...
Jul 9, 2021
Do you have questions about using the Linux OS with FPGAs? Intel is holding another 'Ask an Expert' session and the topic is 'Using Linux with Intel® SoC FPGAs.' Come and ask our experts about the various Linux OS options available to use with the integrated Arm Cortex proc...

featured video

Electromagnetic Analysis for High-Speed Communication

Sponsored by Cadence Design Systems

When your team is driving the future of breakthrough technologies like autonomous driving, industrial automation, and healthcare, you need software that helps meet approaching deadlines and increasingly high-performance demands. Learn how a system analysis solution can provide accurate 3D modeling, electromagnetic simulation, and electrothermal simulation at the chip, package, PCB, and system level.

Click to learn more

featured paper

PrimeLib Next-Gen Library Characterization - Providing Accelerated Access to Advanced Process Nodes

Sponsored by Synopsys

What’s driving the need for a best-in-class solution for library characterization? In the latest Synopsys Designer’s Digest, learn about various SoC design challenges, requirements, and innovative technologies that deliver faster time-to-market with golden signoff quality. Learn how Synopsys’ PrimeLib™ solution addresses the increase in complexity and accuracy needs for advanced nodes and provides designers and foundries accelerated turn-around time and compute resource optimization.

Click to read the latest issue of Designer's Digest

featured chalk talk

TDK Magnetic Sheets For EMI and NFC Applications

Sponsored by Mouser Electronics and TDK

Today’s dense, complex designs can be extremely challenging from an EMI perspective. Re-designs of PCBs to eliminate problems can be expensive and time consuming, and a manufacturing solution can be preferable. In this episode of Chalk Talk, Amelia Dalton chats with Chris Burket of TDX about Flexield noise suppression sheets, which may be just what your design needs to get EMI under control.

Click here for more information about TDK Flexield Noise Suppression Sheets