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32bit mcu demand drives need for support programmes

For the last year or so, there has been a continuing flurry of activity as companies introduce more variants of microcontrollers designed around cores from the 32bit ARM Cortex-M portfolio. Cortex-M based microcontrollers offer users a number of benefits, including performance, cost, connectivity and energy efficiency.

But the move to 32bit based systems is not always as easy as some would suggest. By their nature, microcontrollers lend themselves to being designed in and sold through the distribution channel. As such, they represent the second largest product market available to distribution companies after analogue components.

According to figures released by distribution group DMASS, sales of microcontrollers reached €830million in 2009. And distribution specialist Silica has recently reported that sales of microcontrollers represented 9.4% of its revenues in 2010. Karlheinz Weigl is Silica's regional vice president, Central Europe. "We are seeing significant growth in microcontroller sales and know the high end market – 32bit devices – grew in value the most, even though demand for 8bit devices continues to rise.

This is further evidence that people are waking up to 32bit." Weigl acknowledges the auto industry as being a major consumer of 32bit devices and admits Silica doesn't have much interest in that market. "But we see growth in demand from those designing anything related to making machines more power efficient. And nobody wants interfaces they can't 'talk to'." Responding to this growing interest in microcontrollers, Silica has launched the Core'n More programme.

Although it is placing emphasis on the ARM based elements of its portfolio, Silica will also be promoting parts from Microchip and Renesas. "ARM will be the key artchitecture," Weigl admitted, "but it will be the customer who decides what device to choose." Weigl is Silica's executive sponsor for the programme. "There is a clear trend towards the ARM architecture; it's a fact. We're hearing from non ARM users that they will move away from proprietary architectures because they see the benefit of a standard core and platform." So what is Core'n More?

According to Silica, it's a major growth programme which provides a focus for its portfolio of microcontroller solutions, tools, software support and design in services. It's a move by the company to give it a third major revenue stream, alongside programmable logic and analogue. "Core'n More brings structure to our market approach," Weigl continued. "We are trying to improve our market share – our target is to grow this to 15% by January 2014, making Silica the leading microcontroller distributor."

Core'n More is a three year plan, focused on industrial markets in Germany, the UK, France and Italy. Investments are being made in marketing, training and technical resources. Weigl is keen to point out that Core'n More is a technology focused programme. He said that 'anyone can sell microcontrollers'. "That's a straightforward task; we're a distributor and can sell to customers. But what we're doing with Core'n More is to add to our capabilities; for example, by training our field application engineers to a higher degree in the ARM architecture."

And why the name? Silica president Miguel Fernandez said: "We called the programme Core 'n More because it extends far beyond the distribution of microcontrollers. Core 'n More also recognises our ecosystem of design and software partners and our strong collaboration with ARM, whose processor technology provides one of the most established, technically advanced building blocks for embedded designs."

Weigl expanded upon the point. "As we move the complexity curve, we need to offer better tool support because time to market is an increasingly important issue. We're specialising on the tool chain by working with third parties and this is the fourth element in the programme, alongside hardware, software and Silica's expertise."

In fact, Weigl believes the tool chain element will be a key differentiator. "We're buidling a software capability so we can help customers to get their designs started. For example, Silica is the leading Microsoft Embedded distributor in Europe, but we are augmenting that capability by being equally competent in Linux and other operating systems. We want to support the customer through the whole of their design cycle."

One of the ways in which Silica plans to support engineers is through the provision of reference designs. "We've already started this effort," Weigl noted. "An example is the Synergy board, which is based on the STM32 microcontroller and a Virtex fgpa; that's a combination we see a lot of in industry." However, he admitted the first boards developed would be used by Silica's salesforce to showcase its technology.

"However, we will be doing more of these; they are a clear opportunity for Silica to help its customers to use its expertise. But we won't be developing designs for specific applications." Colin Weaving, technical director with Future Electronics UK, described the microcontroller market as 'interesting'. "Every year, prices decrease and unit shipments keep growing; microcontrollers are becoming a ubiquitous technology."

While he notes growing interest in 32bit devices, he also points to developments at the other end of the market. "8bit parts will be with us forever, but there has been significant uptake in demand for 32bit devices. But it's not just ARM based products, it's across the board." There may be growing interest in 32bit mcus, but it's not just for ARM based devices. According to Weaving, a surprising number of Future's customers investigate the ARM architecture, but end up buying something else.

"The decision tends to be project and application specific, even down to who makes the choice. Hardware engineers may choose anything; software developers are more likely to choose by architecture." One of the main drivers towards 32bit mcus is their ability to support more elaborate communications. "High speed communications is becoming a 'given' on many applications," Weaving noted, "and 8bit parts struggle. Once you go to 32bit, you have an OS with stacks and drivers and you can be faster to market."

But there is also interest in greater power efficiency. "Reducing power consumption – static and active – is a major trend," Weaving noted. "It used to be that the MSP430 was a quantum leap ahead of everyone, but that's gone; many devices are in the same area."

The move to 32bit mcus isn't creating the skills gap that might be imagined, Weaving believes. "Designers may struggle for a few weeks, but they get up to speed." Future has a range of support in place, depending on where the customer is in the design cycle. "Our System Design Centre has developed baseboards which support 32bit architectures. These enable customers to evaluate what works for them. And we have a software ecosystem in place," said Weaving.

But Weaving is keen to point out that Future is 'core agnostic'. "Customers might read about ARM and wonder if it would help them. We'll help them to evaluate the options, but we'll keep their minds open to other possibilities," he concluded.

Graham Pitcher

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