March 31, 2020 | Paul Fulhorst
Device designs are increasingly adopting microcontrollers that are either limited in the amount of embedded memory they have on-chip or have eschewed flash memory in...
Recently, S3 Semiconductors worked with a highly respected supplier of equipment to the oil and gas industry to design a smart control valve. The successful project not only slashed costs but also resulted in a next-generation product that leapfrogged the customer years ahead of its competitors.
For the petrochemicals production sector, where a few minutes of lost production can cost tens of thousands of dollars and a safety lapse can cost millions, modern smart valves offer numerous benefits, including hugely enhanced safety, more responsive monitoring and increased throughput. The customer’s original valve control system was a functional solution built from application-specific standard products (ASSPs) and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. This worked, and it was a good way for the customer to feel out the parameters of the problem space and get a working device onto the market. But the whole package was relatively bulky and with an expensive, total electronics bill of materials (BOM) component cost. The device was not clearly differentiated from competing products, and there was obviously room for refinement. This was where S3semi stepped in.
‘Our client needed to move their products forward in the very competitive world,’ said Dermot Barry, VP & GM of S3semi.
This customer had no ASIC design experience, but it had heard that with custom silicon, it could increase its top-line revenue by adding more value to its existing product line, as well as improving its bottom-line profits by reducing electronics BOM costs.
‘To make a long story short, their vision of the future led them to us,’
But S3 Semiconductors task was still a challenging one: to recreate the original device’s ARM processor core, multiple sensor interfaces, industry-standard communications protocols and other features in custom silicon that was tuned exactly to the customer’s requirements – and to match or better the already very low power demands of the original valve electronics.
Over the course of the next year, S3semi worked closely with the customer to express all the critical control functions of its smart valve in one custom system-on-a-chip (SoC) device, which not only cut the customer’s electronics BOM costs by a remarkable 80% but was also a better product than the original in every respect.
The new SoC-based valve offered all-around improvements in functionality and performance, including lower power consumption and a smaller form factor. It also delivered improved reliability – due to the SoC-based integrated design, which naturally involves far fewer discrete components and connections. For the oil and gas industry, there’s no question that the new SoC-based valve represents a revolutionary leap ahead of older products.
Moreover, the new valve opened up new opportunities for portfolio tiering. It’s a configurable device that allows multiple product tiers to be derived from one base design, at minimal development cost. So the customer not only had a better product but in fact a series of products that could be more precisely targeted at a wider variety of customers.
The low cost of custom silicon also creates plenty of headroom for future enhancements and new products, without a costly redesign. “There are a lot of features on the chip which were not immediately needed by the customer, but they know they will use them in the future,” commented an S3 Semiconductors engineer.
In addition to the cost savings, reliability improvements and broader market reach, the shift from off-the-shelf parts to custom silicon also means that the customer now has a product with much stronger IP security and that is much harder for cut-price competitors to copy. The result is a longer market lifetime for the valve, and a strengthening of the company’s brand.
Looking at the finished product, the client told S3semi engineers that ‘this SoC will allow us to get years ahead of our competitors’.