HomeToys Interview Pervasiveness and Impact of Embedded Controllers
Paul Grimme | Motorola's 8/16-Bit Microcontroller Division
1) Describe the impact of the pervasiveness of embedded controllers in peoples' daily lives. How do these chips impact products in the home, car, and office?
It is hard to think of another invention in the 21st century that has had more of an impact on the world than the embedded controller. These smart devices touch the lives of almost every consumer and business in the industrialized world. The term embedded controller refers to any semiconductor device (or "chip") including a microcontroller (MCU), digital signal processor (DSP), microprocessor (MPU), and mixed-signal integrated circuit (IC) used in an embedded control application. These chips are actually embedded into a system or product with operating instructions (functions and capability of the device) permanently built into them that perform the same function every time it is activated in the system or product.
"Embedded" systems refer to generally every application except the desktop system of a PC where much of the attention of the media is focused. However, approximately 98 percent of the semiconductors manufactured are embedded chips used for automobiles, industrial equipment, games, appliances, office equipment and personal communications devices to name a few.
While a significant amount of the embedded controllers manufactured are 8-bit MCUs, with almost 250 million of them sold in the industry every month, there is a growing demand for 16- and 32-bit embedded controllers and DSP/MCU hybrid chips. These embedded controllers are the brains behind thousands of products that we use in our daily life, from household appliances like refrigerators and washing machines to exercise equipment, printers, automobiles and cellular phones. The addition of these chips to a multitude of systems and products brings many benefits to consumers such as increased functionality, quality and reliability, as well as cost-effectiveness and, oftentimes, increased energy efficiency.
2) What trends and benefits do you see with embedded controllers related to the home networking and control market?
One trend is for semiconductor suppliers to develop "systems on a chip" which means that more features are added onto embedded controllers. This allows OEM designers to use fewer components, thereby reducing costs and increasing the reliability for their product or systems.
Another trend is adding control functions through software upgrades with the use of Flash memory contained on an embedded controller. Flash memory is a special type of memory used to give OEMs added flexibility in designing and manufacturing products, but also benefits end-users, as diagnostics and upgrades are possible. For example, Beltronics uses an MCU with Flash memory in its VECTOR SERIES radar detectors. Incorporating Flash technology from Motorola enables future software upgrades, allowing these products to have the highest possible capability to adapt to new types of traffic radar monitoring technologies as they emerge.
Overall, some of the key benefits these chips bring to end products include:
- wired or wireless Internet connectivity for appliances and home electronics, giving the capability of remote diagnostic and updates through the Internet
- wired or wireless networking capability between appliances and home electronics to allow for central control and automation
- longer battery life for portable and mobile electronics
- and smaller systems and products due to smaller, more feature-laden embedded controllers that allow for fewer system components.
3) What types of functions do the embedded controller chips perform in appliances, HVAC, and consumer electronics?
Embedded controllers are enabling Internet connectivity for Internet appliance, HVAC and white goods by enabling connectivity and programmability. They digitally control the speed of motors for washing machines and refrigerators not only helping the units to run more efficiently, but also more reliably, by eliminating less reliable mechanical switches and contacts. They also process inputs from user interfaces that control the functions of appliances, such as the water level, agitation speed and length of time for a wash cycle in a washing machine. User interfaces can also replace switches and simple on/off lights with displays that guide a user to perform more complex control more easily. A final example is advanced dishwashers, which have dirt sensors and MCUs that read how dirty the dishes are and control how much water is used and for how long. This helps to save water and energy and ensures the wash is long enough to clean the dishes.
4) You say the average person comes in contact with these smart devices daily. How many are we talking about, and what is the projected growth?
According to data from analyst firm Semico Research, in 2005 the average person will encounter approximately 300 embedded controllers daily in their homes, cars, offices and on their person. This is projected to increase to more than 350 by 2010 as new applications and market segments are created. Factors influencing the increase in the number of products using these devices include additional functionality and features in products and the growing trend of replacing mechanical components with electronic components in products.
5) Do these "smart devices" need "smart people" to be able to operate them or can they be made simple enough that the average person feels comfortable using them without a long learning curve?
The beauty of this technology is that oftentimes, a user is completely unaware of the enabling technology behind a product or system because it is seamless and may actually make a product easier to use. For example, a microcontroller "controls" the user interface for a home theater system, allowing the user to access all of the features through a smart, user-friendly remote control.
6) What effect does the inclusion of embedded controller chips have on the cost of these everyday devices to the consumer?
The price of embedded controllers continues to drop, with many costing less than a dollar. As the price of electronic components continues to decrease, it is becoming increasingly possible for manufacturers to replace mechanical components with electronics, adding increased reliability, features and energy savings. For example, in a washing machine, pressure sensors are being added to measure the flow of water filling the machine that can detect an abnormal rate of water flow and send a signal to the other electronics in the machine to perform diagnostics. If there is a leak it can shut off the water valve, and if the machine is networked it can send diagnostic information regarding the need for repair to the owner's computer or that of the repair company.
7) What types of cool products do you think will be introduced in the next three years using embedded controller technology?
There are many products available today that have not yet seen a high adoption rate such as home networking and programmable appliances. The Yankee Group forecasts that 12.4 million households are willing to adopt a home network offering if it's the right one. As the benefits are communicated and prices decrease, there will be a growing consumer demand and expectation for a connected home, car or office.
We will see new products that use the Internet for content delivery, entertainment and automation; and the addition of audio capability to consumer devices, including both speech recognition and audio output.
Applications that will continue to drive the growth of embedded controllers include: digitally controlled appliances; video games with excellent graphics; handheld, palmtop, automobile and network PCs; mobile personal communicators with low power consumption; office peripherals including modems, fax machines, and printers; set-top boxes, DVD and home theater equipment; and digital cameras. The possibilities are endless.
Paul Grimme is corporate vice president and general manager of the 8/16-Bit Products Division of the Transportation & Standard Products Group.
Paul joined Motorola's Microcontroller Division in 1981 as a product engineer for 68705 EPROM products. Since that time, he has held positions of increasing responsibility within the company in the areas of product engineering, marketing and operations management. In 1996, Paul was promoted to general manager of the Motorola Focus Division. In 1999, he was promoted to vice president and served as the Transportation Systems Group chief of staff.
In 1999, Paul was promoted to vice president and general manager of the Advanced Vehicle Systems Division. In this role, he led the division's 32-bit microcontroller thrust into the automotive powertrain and chassis markets - one of the most commercially successful architecture adoptions in the automotive segment.
In May 2001, Paul transitioned to vice president and general manager of the 8/16-Bit Products Division. In December 2001, he was promoted to his current position as corporate vice president and general manager of the 8/16-Bit Products Division.
Paul earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska. In 1992, he received his masters of business administration degree from the University of Texas.
Paul lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Julie, and daughters, Holly and Katelyn.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of HomeToys
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