Four key application areas powered by low-power microcontrollers

Microcontrollers have been widely used for smart applications as there are more electronic devices than people on the planet. In this blog post, we asked Greg Hogdson, Director of Marketing for Silicon Labs’ microcontroller products, about his perspective on low-power microcontrollers for four applications areas such as home appliance, LED lighting, automotive and Internet of Things.

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Q: Could you share your view on the four application areas: home appliance, LED lighting, automotive and Internet of Things and what are Silicon Labs’ solutions in these fields?

We view the Internet of Things (IoT) as the next evolution of computing, adding smart sensing, processing and wireless connectivity to the electronic “things” in our lives to make them more useful. The IoT is already having a significant impact on the home appliance, LED lighting and automotive markets.

The proliferation of connected devices in smart homes is extending to “white goods” and other home appliances. Smart appliances require both 8- and 32-bit MCUs to process data from various sensors and provide capacitive sensing for touch control panels. Many smart appliances also include RF transceivers to transmit data wirelessly, enabling end users to monitor and control their appliances via smartphones.

The LED lighting market growth is also influenced by the expansion of the IoT. According to the research firm IHS, the supply of LED lighting products now exceeds demand, which is driving down prices and margins for manufacturers and contributing to the growth of the smart lighting market. Smart lighting makes sense in applications such as office buildings and street lighting that can absorb the initial short-term cost of LED technology.

The global automotive industry continues to grow steadily. According to IHS, worldwide automotive sales in 2014 are projected to rise 3.4 percent in 2014, with China expected to be one of the fastest growing markets. Requirements for intelligence and connectivity in the car are increasing significantly, and today’s automobiles are platforms for cutting-edge innovation in in-vehicle applications such as body electronics, powertrain management, safety systems and IoT-enabled infotainment.

Silicon Labs provides a wide range of 8051-based 8-bit and ARM-based 32-bit MCU products for numerous IoT applications, as well as a comprehensive development environment – Simplicity Studio™ – to accelerate IoT system design. Our 8-bit MCUs are widely used in consumer, industrial and smart energy applications. Silicon Labs recently introduced a new family of ultra-low-power capacitive sensing 8-bit MCUs – the C8051F97x family – designed for touch-control applications such as home appliance control panels. Our energy-friendly EFM32 Gecko MCU family includes nearly 250 32-bit products scaling from ARM Cortex-M0+ to M3 to M4 cores, providing scalable pin- and software-compatible solutions for power-sensitive, battery-operated connected devices. We also provide automotive-grade 8-bit MCUs (qualified and tested to AEC-Q100) for automotive body electronics applications such as window lifters, door and power seat controls, lighting control, occupancy sensing, HVAC systems and windshield wiper systems. For the broader LED lighting market, we provide industry-leading ARM-based ZigBee SoCs that enable intelligent wireless connectivity and mesh networking for smart lighting systems.

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Q: As the demand for low-power MCUs increases, there are more and more vendors providing low-power MCUs. What are the advantages of your products for low-power applications?

Low-energy MCUs are growing in importance for battery-powered appliance applications in the home. Silicon Labs offers the industry’s most energy-friendly 8-bit and 32-bit MCUs, which are ideal for power-sensitive, battery-operated products. Silicon Labs’ 32-bit EFM32 Gecko MCUs provide industry-leading energy efficiency in all energy modes, enabling very long battery life coupled with optimal processing performance. All Gecko MCUs feature a peripheral reflex system (PRS) that monitors complex system-level events and allows different MCU peripherals to communicate autonomously while keeping the CPU in an energy-saving sleep mode as long as possible to reduce overall system power consumption. Silicon Labs’ Simplicity Studio development platform also includes energy-aware development tools that enable embedded developers to optimize their designs for low energy.

Q: In general, small home appliances have only simple requirements which can be met by 8-bit MCUs. With the growing popularity of 32-bit MCUs based on ARM Cortex-M0/M0+, what is the prospect of 32-bit MCUs on small appliances in the future?

8-bit MCUs such as the Silicon Labs C8051 continue to provide optimal solutions for applications that require simple port control determinism. There are many basic embedded applications that toggle pins and require modest processing power. In addition to being more deterministic than 32-bit ARM architecture, 8-bit development is also very straightforward. When a developer writes a line of C8051 bit code, he or she knows exactly how it will execute. 8-bit MCUs also lend themselves to very small form factors. For example, Silicon Labs offers 8-bit devices in package sizes as small as 2 mm x 2 mm while providing exceptional levels of peripheral integration and performance. It makes sense to consider ARM MCUs for computationally intensive applications with math requirements best served by 32-bit processing. For many small home appliance applications, 16 x 16 multiply capabilities offered by 8-bit MCUs are perfectly adequate. Overall code size is another consideration. For applications requiring more than 64 KB of flash memory, ARM MCUs offer some advantages over 8-bit MCUs.

Q: Automobile applications need a variety of MCUs – the high, medium and low-end MCUs. What do you think about the development trend of this market?  

The quantity of high-performance MCUs used in automotive powertrain, safety system and infotainment applications will not increase significantly in the future, rather, additional functionality will be integrated. However, we are seeing the proliferation of low to medium-performance MCUs in cars as the demand for automotive body electronics continues to increase, driven by consumer expectations and OEMs seeking differentiation and governmental compliance. The system design to production time has dropped dramatically over the past five years, and these body electronics systems often require tight integration with the rest of the vehicle while reducing cost, weight and energy consumption. Automotive and AEC-Q100-qualified 8-bit MCUs are often well-suited for many small-function vehicle applications operating downstream and stand-alone from the main body control module (BCM).

Q: There are a growing number of smart lighting applications for MCU products. What is the development trend of this market for MCU products?

There are still many opportunities for cost-effective 8-bit touch control in lighting control applications. Lighting control is also increasingly going wireless. We are seeing opportunities in the smart lighting market for our 8051-based 8-bit wireless MCUs for point control solutions in the sub-GHz range. We are also seeing a growing trend toward the use of 32-bit MCUs and wireless MCUs for lighting control. For example, Silicon Labs is experiencing strong market traction for our ARM-based Ember ZigBee wireless SoCs in LED lighting control applications.

Q: For IoT applications, connectivity, intelligence and processing are the three most important aspects. What are the key technologies that Silicon Labs provides to enable the IoT?

The fundamental technologies required to enable the IoT include sensing, processing and wireless connectivity. Connected devices must be able to sense conditions such as light, temperature, humidity, motion, human proximity and power consumption. Silicon Labs provides a wide range of optical and environmental sensors that can be used in many connected device applications. Depending on the use case, such as a home security wireless sensor node, a sensor may generate a very small amount of data that is communicated at very low power, processed locally and then aggregated. This data often must be processed locally in the connected device end node. We believe that energy-efficient ARM-based MCUs will be incorporated into all IoT connected devices to enable this local processing capability while enabling very long battery life. Connected devices also require robust wireless networks based on ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Smart and sub-GHz technologies. Silicon Labs is the leading provider of ZigBee devices today, as well as a leading sub-GHz IC supplier. Most of the semiconductor components used in connected device applications are based on mixed-signal CMOS technology. These components – sensors, MCUs and wireless ICs – must be very energy efficient, cost efficient and flexible enough to serve a broad range of IoT applications. Coming soon, we will see the introduction of “IoT SoCs” that combine an MCU, wireless transceiver, flash memory and sensor interfaces into energy-friendly, single-chip devices that will greatly reduce the cost and complexity of IoT end node applications.

Visit our Internet of Things page to learn more about our low power embedded solutions. 

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