January 9, 2020 | Brent Humphrey
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It used to be so simple. If you were designing an industrial system or product, you knew where you stood. You chose well-proven technologies, developed over many years or even decades. Everything was tested in harsh environments. Everything worked. And no-one expected you to keep up with the latest fashion in consumer gadgets.
Today, that world has gone. In the industrial sector, many customers want consumer technologies like Bluetooth wireless connectivity, sensors, and touch screens – and they want them to meet the same standards of ruggedness and reliability that they’ve always enjoyed.
If you’re an OEM designing for the industrial market, you need to keep up. You need to evaluate these consumer technologies and work out how to apply them. And you need to do it quickly, be flexible, and without compromising the quality of your products. The argument holds true across many industrial markets, from factory automation to the Internet of Things (IoT), to satellite, wireless, and wireline comms.
It’s not always straightforward to adopt consumer technology in industrial applications. There are different demands, such as ruggedness, reliability, and coping with extended temperature ranges and harsh environments. An industrial system may often be expected to run reliably 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Look at mean time between failure (MTBF) figures for any components and subsystems – and while electronic components themselves tend to be very reliable, this may be affected by high temperatures, vibration or electromagnetic interference (EMI). Make sure any supplier can demonstrate their adherence to relevant quality standards, such as ISO 9001, and have sufficient traceability that problems can be identified and fixed quickly.
The IoT also means that industrial products are having to meet cost pressures more familiar to consumer product vendors. An Industrial IoT (IIoT) deployment may involve hundreds or even thousands of devices, which means customers are highly price sensitive, and looking to save every last dollar and cent. This means that standard products may be too expensive, and a custom ASIC is needed to hit the right bill of materials (BOM) cost. By only including the required functionality, and by combining many functions onto a single chip, a custom integrated circuit can reduce costs – as well as needing less space and power than off-the-shelf devices.
You may need expert help and advice, and it may be better to work with a partner to create custom ICs that meet your exact needs, rather than try and shoehorn a standard part into your system. Not all consumer technology will be suitable, of course. For example, consumer devices often use TCP/IP for networking, but this can’t guarantee the low latency needed in many industrial applications – where proprietary Ethernet protocols can deliver the deterministic performance required.
Let’s look at an example: real-time control system ICs in the IIoT. Processing needs to be done at the edge or near the sensor, to make sure the system is responsive and secure. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution because IIoT applications vary widely, and many existing solutions are expensive, bulky, and power-hungry.
For this type of control system IC, a customized semiconductor can deliver the right combination of performance and cost. For example, S3semi’s SmartEdge Platform integrates an analog front end (AFE), calibration, control, communication, and security onto a custom mixed-signal ASIC, providing the features needed in a single optimized IC.
If you choose to go down this customized route, look for a vendor that can provide a strong portfolio of embedded software, and a high level of application expertise. Overall, with industrial markets often having tough requirements in terms of features, ruggedness, and cost, the economics of custom semiconductors can mean they are the best solution.
A custom IC can provide the functions needed, and the ability to hit the right price point. And when it’s backed up by expert support, it can make adding consumer technology to an industrial application as straightforward as possible. Dare I say, even simple.