New Electronics caught up with Mark Patrick Technical Marketing Manager EMEA Marketing at Mouser Electronics to talk about some of the key trends emerging in the embedded space.

From greater board and chip-level systems integration to merging connectivity trends the embedded space has been changing dramatically in recent years, forcing engineers to grapple with a host of new challenges as more industries and products rely on embedded systems.

For many working in this space the future of embedded systems lies in the development of technologies that will enable faster communications, enhanced data storage capacities and highly interwoven connections among devices.

Market research suggests that by 2027 the global embedded system market could be worth in excess of $127.50 billion with embedded systems playing an even more important part in a host of critical systems on which we rely on a daily basis.

The market for embedded systems is growing due to the increasing dependence on digital devices and as embedded systems are highly customisable, they provide much greater flexibility for the new applications being developed by different industries.

Mouser is well placed to provide an overview of what is happening in the embedded space representing, as it does, the full scope of the electronics industry, including all things embedded – ranging from integrated wireless modules to accelerator cards.

“We continuously interact with communities of customers, innovators and suppliers to better understand their embedded development challenges, so that we can help in overcoming them,“ explains Mark Patrick the distributor’s Technical Marketing Manager EMEA Marketing.

For the interview we focused on three specific developments, staring with the accelerated rate of board and chip-level systems integration.

What are seen as the driving factors behind this trend?

“The contemporary approach to embedded systems design is vastly different to what was used two decades ago,” according to Patrick. “Connectivity is now of the utmost importance, - however, while this enables higher performance, it means a greater emphasis must be placed on security. Also, whether they are installed in in a smart phone, an automobile or the office, users have also come to expect a higher degree of interactivity with embedded systems. In the past, for example, a few flashing LEDs were considered sufficient to provide an interface with an embedded system, today’s user expect even the smallest systems to provide a feature-rich display.

“Adding connectivity and a visual interface to an embedded system greatly increase the design challenge, especially where power and form factor must be kept to a minimum.

“The increasingly competitive nature of today’s market has shortened time-to-market cycles which means engineering teams now face ever tighter deadlines when defining a set of requirements for a new product. Multi-functional systems and modules already integrated into a single package provide engineers with a workable approach to overcoming these challenges.

“For example, designing a wireless system consisting of a sophisticated transceiver and antenna which complies with local radio spectrum regulations is expensive and requires specialist RF engineering skills. Even after the design phase is complete, the unavoidable steps of verification, testing and qualification further delay the introduction of a new product to the market. Lower-cost and much quicker alternatives include using either a pre-certified wireless module or a customised SoC (although this approach requires some degree of testing, certification and approval).

Today’s DC/DC converters also clearly demonstrate the huge advances that have taken place in board-level integration. These tiny modules have been optimised to allow boards designers to meet the extremely demanding space and thermal constraints of present-day systems. “Considering the fact that an initial design of a power module with similar specifications would require many years of engineering effort and expertise, it is clearly logical to instead use a module that has already been proven in the field and which can be easily sourced.

“For component suppliers, having the ability to provide highly integrated modules and SoC solutions to engineering teams has becomes key differentiator. Another critical factor for component suppliers is that integrated solutions enable easy adoption and help to make design-in seamless.”

Connectivity

As a global distributor what are the emerging trends that are you are seeing in the area of connectivity? What should embedded system design engineers be aware of?

“Connectivity has become ubiquitous enabling the gathering, transport, and analysis of vast volumes of real-time information from many disparate sources – anything ranging from smartwatches, and industrial IoT edge sensors to floating ocean sensors,” explains Patrick.

“Reliable connectivity has become a feature that users now expect to be part of any electronic system. From the perspective of the engineer, providing wireless connectivity means understanding the technical requirements for including it in their designs, including knowledge of data-rates, range and compatibility. It is only after these have been identified that the most appropriate wireless protocol and topology can be chosen.

“The number and variety of use cases for connected devices continues to grow and this in turn has led to the development of new wireless protocols which are more suited to these emerging applications. Wi-Fi is a well-understood technology commonly used for high-speed data transfer but it consumes a lot of power. To address this problem, new protocols like Wi-SUN and Wi-Fi HaLow have been developed and are now being deployed in smart-city and utility metering applications.

“Keeping abreast of new technology trends has become yet another challenge for embedded developers, which is why we as a distributor continuously endeavour to provide engineers with the type of material that helps them to do this.

“We aim to help engineers to assess the options available to them and make the best technology decision for their particular application.

“Our focus is not solely on engineers - we also aim to assist buyers and purchasing staff by providing them with the information they need, like our “Technology Guide for Component Buyers”.

The ‘virtual world’

How do you see the ‘virtual world’ impacting on the future of embedded systems development?

“Remote collaborative development on enterprise applications was already taking place well in advance of the recent pandemic, which has since made virtual working a necessity. Geographical location has never been a barrier to the development of embedded systems, which are ideally suited to virtual collaboration using online tools like GitHub and PlatformIO. “These provide all the resources required by embedded developers to perform coding, debugging and sharing of updates. Traditional IDE suppliers are also responding to the growth in virtual working by adding online collaborative features to their tools. Many semiconductor and platform providers are also making their IDE toolchains ‘cloud-enabled’, with Microchip's MP Lab X, and Arduino’s ‘Arduino Editor’ being good examples of this evolution.

“Virtual working allows companies to tap into specialist knowledge, no matter where in the world it is located, and this will be critical in overcoming challenges like the design of low power, fast wake-up hardware.  

“We also have regular conversations with our suppliers to tap into their knowledge of emerging trends and we are now witnessing the increased popularity of simpler, "low-code" pseudo languages like as Node-RED, to complement the more classical embedded development languages (like C).

“TinyML makes machine learning using low power microcontrollers possible and is quickly gaining popularity. It is pushing the boundaries of the role of the embedded developer even further. However, online development tools like Edge Impulse are helping to simplify their development tasks.

“Virtual embedded development recently took another quantum leap with the launch of MikroE's Planet Debug service. This enables remote debugging of an embedded hardware development platform and is undoubtedly a sign of things to come in the future.”