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Outlook 2016: Opportunities abound for innovation

The Internet of Things is broadening the opportunities for electronics companies, but traditional markets are still in need of innovation.

The speed with which electronics technology develops means it’s always a good time for product developers. More capable devices available for less cost allow designers to be more innovative, while support software is helping them to get those products to market on or even ahead of schedule.

Many of those designers – and readers of Outlook 2016 – will be looking to create products for the Internet of Things, or IoT. Despite the fact there remains a healthy discussion about what the term IoT actually represents, most will agree that there exists a huge opportunity for companies of all sizes to create devices that sense ‘something’ and transmit that data to The Cloud.

Often battery powered, these so called ‘edge devices’ need to consume as little power as possible, whilst retaining the ability to do some processing and to then transmit that data via wired or wireless communications to a gateway. The gateway then aggregates the input from a number of edge devices and sends it on to servers in The Cloud for analysis and the generation of some kind of output. All the way along this link from the edge to the heart of the network, there is the need to protect against unauthorised intrusions.

But it all starts with an idea. Gone are the days when engineers could refine their ideas for months; today, they want to move as quickly as possible to production. First, however, they need to get their hands on the latest technology. And that role is being handled by the high service distribution sector. Companies in this sector look to carry sample volumes of as many products as possible and to deliver samples to engineers as quickly as possible.

Not only that, these companies are increasingly providing the information engineers need to move their ideas ahead. Mouser, for example, says its customers not only need the latest products, they also need all the other pieces of the ecosystem – from reference designs to content. Mouser also provides design software links to its database to provide Bill of Materials quotes.

But even before companies like Mouser can distribute semiconductors, they have to be designed and manufactured. Many of these devices will be systems on a chip, or SoCs. These are created using an approach called electronic system level design. The process has been refined for the past 20 years, bringing ever higher levels of abstraction.

These more complex SoCs bring in IP – blocks of circuitry – from a number of sources, so companies like Cadence are focusing on supporting IP reuse; not just discrete blocks, but also subsystems of processors with peripherals and interconnects.

Making sure these SoCs work is increasingly burdensome, so EDA are putting more and more effort into developing verification techniques that exercise complex designs, pushing the so called ‘corner cases’.

Building SoCs on leading edge processes is expensive, but the dominant cost for any such project is now software. And this is another opportunity for EDA companies to contribute.

These companies are developing tools that examine code, looking for things like memory leaks, tools that ensure data compatibility between classes and data structures. One of the first application areas for this new approach is likely to be safety critical software, with the benefits trickling down to other sectors where factors like reliability, availability and serviceability are important.

Once the processing platform is ready and the software has been developed, it’s time to link in the sensors that will monitor what’s happening ‘out there’. Sensor specialist ams believes the IoT will need devices which are very small, very power efficient and which can be integrated easily into an application.

But while there will be the need for discrete sensors, there will also be the need for solutions and ams believes there will be a golden age for the sensor IC, allowing an ever greater range of real-world phenomena to be monitored.

Maxim Integrated sees mixed signal and analogue devices making a central contribution to the development of innovative products for industrial and consumer applications alike. It’s another area where integration is helping to make products which are smaller, more robust and which consume less power. And by ‘mopping up’ discrete components, board space is saved.

Data storage is another element in the chain; whether at the edge or in The Cloud. Flash memory has been one of the dominant memory technologies, but has begun to run into challenges as process technologies get smaller. The solution is to start building upwards. Toshiba has developed a technology that, today, enables flash memories to be created with 48 layers of cells. The solution enables more bits to be stored per unit area of silicon, but to avoid the problems that would be encountered by continuing with planar devices.

In The Cloud, this means solid state drives can be used to replace hard disks, with capacities of 15Tbyte expected in the near future. These devices will support much higher data transfer rates.

Then systems need to be secured. Security, says ARM, is only as good as the weakest link in the chain – and that link isn’t hardware or software; it’s the future. There will be billions of devices linked into the IoT and many of these will have been built by those with little or no experience of security.

ARM points out that security can’t be added to systems as an afterthought; it needs to be designed in at the earliest opportunity. And security isn’t just a firewall on the system; with multiple layers of security, potential hackers need to find – and exploit – multiple weaknesses before they can access what they’re after.

Microsemi contends that FPGAs are the ideal device on which to build secure systems, maintaining low power consumption in a small footprint. With features such as differential power analysis countermeasures, secured memory and anti tamper protection, FPGAs can be the root of trust – the starting point for hardware security.

Once all that is completed, the product needs to be tested. Tomorrow’s IoT devices, says National Instruments, will need smart test solutions, not ‘big iron’ ATE systems. Test systems, it contends, will need to scale with product innovation.

And then there’s The Cloud. With its millions of servers consuming 2% of global electricity generation, Intersil says it’s high time that digital power control is applied to servers provide a ‘green lining’ to The Cloud.

One of the ‘hot markets’ for the IoT is automotive; as part of the connected car initiative. There’s a whole range of issues involved here, as evidenced by the recent hack of a car in the US. The security issues outlined above need to be applied as much in the automotive world as they do in the industrial sector.

But there’s another burning issue in the automotive world: the electrification of the car through the introduction of hybrid and electric vehicles. The recent furore over Volkswagen’s testing software has highlighted the need to move quickly to a cleaner future.

Perhaps the first step on the way is the ‘mild hybrid’, which don’t require high voltage batteries or large energy storage systems. The ‘big ticket’ – and physically large – item in the mild hybrid is the inverter. Better electronics will mean smaller inverters and cheaper hybrid cars.

The IoT is a broad market with many opportunities. But electronics companies shouldn’t overlook the opportunities that exist in traditional markets. Will your company take advantage?

Author
Graham Pitcher

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