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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Mergers shake up the semiconductor industry

Review of the year

By Nick Flaherty

This year has seen a staggering consolidation within the semiconductor industry. With deals ranging from the merger of NXP and Freescale through Broadcom and Avago to Qualcomm and CSR, Infineon and International Rectifier and Intel absorbing Altera (which completed today), the field of suppliers in the embedded industry will change significantly by the end of next year as a result.
Other deals are continuing, with Dialog Semiconductor's acquisition of Atmel still in play, and TDK taking over Micronas.
This is highlighted in the recent figures from market researcher IC Insight. Bill McClean sees the integrated device makers (IDM) overtaking the fabless chip makers briefly, partly as a result of the mergers and partly from currency fluctuations. But it does shake up the list of the top suppliers considerably.
As shown in Figure 1, only three of the top-10 IDM semiconductor suppliers are forecast to register growth in 2015 and, in total, the top-10 IDMs are expected to display flat growth this year. says McClean.  Intel remains the dominant player, and Altera's $460m fabless business will barely make a bump in the figures as the new Programmable Solutions division. The combined NXP/Freescale is now moving up to challenge Texas Instruments, although the majority of the NXP basis is moving to fabless rather than IDM.
Top 10 IDMs for 2015 post merger. Source: IC Insights

Although flat growth by the top-10 IDMs would typically be considered poor performance, it is still forecast to be a much better result than is expected from the top-10 fabless semiconductor suppliers (Figure 2).  In order to make direct comparisons for year-over-year growth, IC Insights combined the merged, or soon to be merged, companies’ 2014 and 2015 semiconductor sales regardless of when the merger occurred, providing a more accurate figure. However, how well the companies execute on the merger will impact on this potential growth.

Figure 2: Fabless semiconductor vendors are seeing the effects of consolidation more strongly than IDMs. Source: IC Insights 

As shown, the top-10 fabless semiconductor suppliers are forecast to register a 5% decline in sales this year, five points worse than the top-10 IDMs.  It should be noted that essentially all of the decline expected for the top-10 fabless suppliers in 2015 could be attributed to the forecasted decline in Qualcomm/CSR’s sales this year, which comes from Samsung’s increasing use of its internally developed Exynos application processor in its smartphones instead of the application processors it had previously sourced from Qualcomm.

Figure 3: Flat growth in 2015 shows the semiconductor market moving into its negative cycle, with consequences for the embedded market. Source: IC Insights
All this highlights the turn in the market in figure 3. From positive growth last year to flat sales this year, the market is heading into its downward trend. This will make life difficult for embedded developers as the top ten companies in both areas cut costs and product lines to compensate, and drive more consolidation through 2016.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Market for the Internet of Things to double by 2019 to 30bn connections

By Nick Flaherty

Internet of Things integrated circuit sales expected to grow 15.9% a year over the next four years, with MCUs and SoC processors seeing the strongest growth according to one of the most reliable market researchers. 

Between 2015 and 2019, worldwide systems revenues for applications connecting to the Internet of Things will nearly double, reaching $124.5 billion in the final year of this decade, according to Bill McClean of IC Insights in his 2016 edition of the IC Market Drivers report.  During that same timeframe, new connections to the Internet of Things (IoT) will grow from about 1.7 billion in 2015 to nearly 3.1 billion in 2019 - that's more than five for every person on the planet, but that's still one of the more conservative forecasts. 

Figure 1: Growth in IoT connections to 2019

The new IC Market Drivers report shows about 30.0 billion Internet connections are expected to be in place worldwide in 2020, with 85% of those attachments being to web-enabled “things” — commercial, industrial, and consumer systems, distributed sensors, vehicles, and other connected objects, all with embedded silicon controllers and transceiver. The remaining 15% is in electronics used by humans to communicate, download and receive streams of data files, and search for online information.  This marks a complete reversal from the Internet boom of 2000, when 85% of 488 million Internet connections providing human users with online access to the World Wide Web and the remaining 15% serving embedded systems, remote sensing and measurements, control, and machine-to-machine communications.

Strong double-digit increases in the Internet of Things market will drive up IC sales in IoT applications by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.9% between 2015 and 2019 to about $19.4 billion in the final year of this decade (Figure 2), according to the new report.  IoT applications will also fuel strong sales growth in optoelectronics, sensors/actuators, and discrete semiconductors (O-S-D), which are projected to rise by a CAGR of 26.0% between 2015 and 2019 to $11.6 billion in four years.  The new IC Market Drivers report shows microcontrollers and system-on-chip microprocessors topping integrated circuit sales growth with a CAGR of 22.3% in the next four years, followed by memories at 19.8%, application specific standard products (ASSPs) at 16.4%, and analog ICs at an annual growth rate of 12.7%.

In the forecast, wearable systems are projected to be the fastest growing IoT application with sales increasing by a CAGR of 59.0%, thanks in great part to a 440% surge in 2015 due to the launch of Apple’s first smartwatches in 2Q15.  Sales of IoT-connected wearable systems are expected to reach $15.2 billion in 2019 compared to $1.5 billion in 2014 and about $8.1 billion in 2015.
Meanwhile, connected vehicles (passenger cars and light trucks) are expected to be the second fastest market category for IoT technology with revenues growing by a CAGR of 31.5% between 2014 and 2019 to $5.3 billion in the final year of this decade.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Powering a personal wireless network with urine

By Nick Flaherty

I've been following the development of miniaturised microbial fuel cells (MFCs) at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory for a couple of years now, and it's great to see a prototype with a good use case.

Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) replicate biological processes to generate energy, and researchers at UWE in Bristol have embedded the technology in a pair of socks. The key is that the MFCs take in urine and produce enough energy to power a wireless transceiver, creating a personal area network (PAN) link without having to use batteries.  This is the first self-sufficient system powered by a wearable energy generator based on microbial fuel cell technology and the research paper, ‘Self-sufficient Wireless Transmitter Powered by Foot-pumped Urine Operating Wearable MFC’, is published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

The paper describes a lab-based experiment led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). The Bristol BioEnergy Centre is based in Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Bristol.

Researchers at UWE have developed socks that convert urine into energy to
power a wireless transceiver for a personal area network without batteries
Soft MFCs embedded within a pair of socks was supplied with fresh urine, circulated by the human operator walking.  Normally, continuous-flow MFCs would rely on a mains powered pump to circulate the urine over the microbial fuel cells, but this experiment relied solely on human activity, which is a key step forward (pun intended). The manual pump was based on a simple fish circulatory system and the action of walking caused the urine to pass over the MFCs and generate energy. Soft tubes, placed under the heels, ensured frequent fluid pushpull by walking. The wearable MFC system successfully ran a wireless transmission board, which was able to send a message every two minutes to the PC-controlled receiver module.

“Having already powered a mobile phone with MFCs using urine as fuel, we wanted to see if we could replicate this success in wearable technology. We also wanted the system to be entirely self-sufficient, running only on human power – using urine as fuel and the action of the foot as the pump,” said Professor Ieropoulos. “This opens up possibilities of using waste for powering portable and wearable electronics. For example, recent research shows it should be possible to develop a system based on wearable MFC technology to transmit a person’s coordinates in an emergency situation. At the same time this would indicate proof of life since the device will only work if the operator‘s urine fuels the MFCs.”

The challenge now is how the MFC cells are refuelled with urine.

Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) use bacteria to generate electricity from waste fluids. They tap into the biochemical energy used for microbial growth and convert it directly into electricity.  This technology can use any form of organic waste and turn it into useful energy without relying on fossil fuels, making this a valuable green technology. Parts of this work were funded by the UK Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The research is important in other areas of robotics as it would allow autonomous systems to generate power from waste materials to operate for days or even months at a time.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Can WiFi work for the Internet of Things?

By Nick Flaherty

Enhanced Low-Power (ELP) Wireless MCUs Provide Multi-protocol Support and Quadruple Battery Life in Sensors

If you are Broadcom, shortly to be subsumed into Avago, then the answer seems to be no.

The launch of a family of low power devices under the WICED brand to offer low power would seem to be a route forward - after all, WICED ((Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices) is built on Broadcom's WiFi technology. But the new CORE enhanced low power (ELP) use other technologies to achieve the power reduction.

Using low power WiFi to connect sensors for the Internet of Things is a bit of a 'holy grail' as it means that sensor nodes can be easily added to the home network. Unfortunately, the WiFI protocols suck the power from the battery. This is why Zigbee and now Bluetooth Smart (Bluetooth Low Energy 4.0 and 4.1, with 4.2 emerging soon) have emerged as viable technologies. The trouble is that Zigbee and other 802.15.4 technologies need a gateway to link the sensors to the home network (usually via WiFi). Bluetooth smart held promise as the sensors could connect directly to a smartphone but still mostly need a gateway device.

So a pin-compatible family of 802.15.4 and Bluetooth Smart devices is a great step forward, it's just not the one we hoped for.

The WICED CORE ELP Bluetooth family delivers advanced technology for a wide range of IoT applications, including simultaneous multi-protocol support, the industry's first 40nm flash memory in a communications SoC, low-power consumption and a common development platform. By integrating a host of features including increased processor speed, FPU and DSP libraries, more applications RAM and significant flash memory on a chip the size of a fingernail, Broadcom enables OEMs to create more complex applications and employ a wireless MCU that scales across a much wide product set. "Broadcom further separates itself from the competition with our new WICED CORE ELP family," said Brian Bedrosian, Senior Director of Product Marketing for Wireless Connectivity at Broadcom. "In addition to enabling multi-protocol support, we support more complex IoT applications for OEMs and developers, all while consolidating our low-power solution in a small package."
There are three different multi-protocol devices, all sharing an ARM Cortex CM4 core with floating point and digital signal processing extensions to get that lower power and enable the same software to be used across the different devices:
  • BCM20719 which supports both Bluetooth and Bluetooth Smart protocols
  • BCM20729 which supports Zigbee and 6LoWPAN protocols
  • BCM20739 which supports Bluetooth, Bluetooth Smart and IEEE 802.15.4 protocols
The family of devices supports: 
  • 512 KB RAM for complex applications
  • 1MB flash memory for program and data storage including support for over-the-air updates
  • Integrated Bluetooth and Bluetooth Smart and Zigbee 3.0 software stacks
  • Advanced sleep and latency management circuitry
  • Compliant with Bluetooth 4.2 specification
  • Expansive set of IO including precision A/D convertors
    • Support for UART, SPI, Quad-SPI and Serial Control interfaces for interfacing to external nonvolatile memories, peripheral ICs, and sensors
  • On-chip, multi-channel ADC for measuring sensor inputs, battery level, and more
  • On-chip AES 256 encryption engines with support for RSA, MD5, ECC and secure element
  • Native wireless charging support for A4WP and Airfuel
The devices are sampling now, but whether the WICED branding survives the Avago merger remains to be seen.

Low-Power Floating Point Processor Core for Intelligent Connected Devices

By Nick Flaherty

How important is floating point performance for the Internet of Things? So far, most of the processing requirement has been on fixed point, mainly to keep the power consumption down as floating point is notoriously power hungry. However, the increasing need for security means there is more demand for low power encryption all the way down to the sensor node. This presents a significant challenge for the system developer. 
French processor core designer Cortus has developed a single precision floating point IP core aimed at embedded systems requiring good floating point computational performance while also delivering small silicon area and low power dissipation. The FPS26 is the third in a family of products based on the Cortus v2 instruction set. 
Once you have the floating point capability, which gives 10x the performance over an integer core, then new applications become possible such as MIMO for reliable (lower power) wireless connections and machine vision to reduce the amount of data that is sent over the network. Growing numbers of controllers in solar energy and industrial control requiring floating point algorithms, many applications require floating point operations executed in hardware to achieve their performance goals. Complex matrix inversion is a challenging computation in MIMO with challenges around precision, quantisation and scaling which can be mitigated by using floating point to reduce the overall power consumption.

The FPS26 IP core provides single precision floating point performance for applications such as industrial control, machine vision and MIMO wireless systems

“For companies developing intelligent ‘things’ requiring floating point algorithms, our FPS26 core offers outstanding computational performance while efficiently using silicon area”, says Michael Chapman President & CEO of Cortus. “It is an excellent fit with the industrial internet of things and with power control applications”.

Although historically embedded software has been dominated by fixed-point operations, there are cases where values may have large dynamic ranges and floating point computation is required or advantageous. Examples include matrix inversion in MIMO baseband processing, matrix multiplication and fast Fourier transforms (FFTs).

The FPS26 has a Harvard architecture, sixteen 32-bit registers and a 5-stage pipeline. It offers an IEEE 754 single precision hardware floating point unit, a pipelined parallel multiplier and a hardware divider. It supports the AXI4-Lite bus as well as Cortus APS peripherals. The small size of FPS26 makes it highly suitable for cost sensitive applications. The CPU starts at around 0.192 square mm using a 90nm technology. Using the Linpack benchmark FPS26 delivers 9.7 times better floating point performance than the APS25 integer core.

Up to eight co-processors can be added to an FPS26 core and the co-processor interface allows licensees to add custom coprocessors, for example to accelerate computations in cryptography or signal processing, without knowing details of the internals of the core. Co-processor instructions can be inserted into C-code appearing as function calls so that all the code can be developed in C, which was a key requirement of the processor design.
The instructions are 16, 24 and 32 bits in length ensuring leading code density and the pipeline features out-of-order execution enabling nearly all integer instructions to execute in a single cycle, including loads and stores. Interrupts are fully vectored and the architecture ensures a minimum of software overhead in task switches. All cores interface to Cortus’ peripherals including Ethernet 10/100 MAC, USB 2.0 Device and USB 2.0 OTG via the efficient APS bus. They also share the simple vectored interrupt structure which ensures rapid, real time interrupt response, with low software overhead.

The APS tool chain and IDE (for C and C++) is available to licensees free of charge, and can be customised and branded for final customer use. Ports of various RTOSs are available such as FreeRTOS, Micrium uC/OSII, Micrium uC/OSIII & TargetOS.

To date well over 800 million devices have been manufactured containing Cortus processor cores.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Farewell Freescale

By Nick Flaherty

Nearly a year on from the initial announcement, the merger of NXP and Freescale Semiconductor completed yesterday.

The results of the deal, announced in March 2015, is billed as creating a high performance mixed signal chip maker with revenue of over $10 billion, trading as NXP Semiconductor. This now makes NXP the market leader in automotive semiconductor solutions and in general purpose microcontroller (MCU) products, although how the two competing ARM-based lines of general purpose microcontrollers will shake out remains to be seen.

Security and the Internet of Things (IoT) will be key areas of growth, and combine both NXP and Freescale hardware and software design expertise. 

“Through this merger we have created an industry powerhouse focused on the high growth opportunities in the Smarter World, capitalizing on the emerging opportunities offered by the accelerating demand for connectivity, processing and security. Today’s formation of the new NXP is a transformative step on our journey to become the industry leader in high performance mixed signal solutions,” said Rick Clemmer, CEO of NXP. “This merger enables us to deliver more complete solutions to our customers as we are emerging as the leader in the Secure Connections – and the supporting infrastructure – for the Smarter World domain. As a result, we reiterate today that we fully expect to continue to significantly out-grow the overall market, drive world-class profitability and generate even more cash, allowing us to continue creating significant value for NXP’s shareholders.”

So it's a fond farewell to Motorola's Semiconductor Products Sector (SPS) and the foray into private-equity and the fab-lite approach (which mapped well to NXP!)