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ARMing OEMs with a solution for changing automation needs

21 January 2014

The increasing degree of networking in automation calls for a new generation of intelligent, decentralised networked devices. Standardized Computer on Modules with the SMARC specification with ARM SoCs are now enabling this new class of device to be developed efficiently. Martin Unverdorben, product manager, Computer-on-Modules at Kontron, explains.

There is a constant search within the automation industry for new solutions to make production processes more intelligent, more transparent and faster. Industry 4.0, M2M, cloud services or control concepts with computer-aided extension of reality perception (augmented automation) all need to be featured in embedded computing hardware. This requires a new generation of networked devices, which has to be embedded deep into the field level of the automation pyramid. 

Mini controllers with integrated RFID interfaces are a prime example. Rugged tablet PCs and smartphone-lookalike mobile HMIs are also required for monitoring machines, for their maintenance and for controlling the flow of goods. Slim and flat HMIs, which can be mounted directly onto the machine and which offer intuitive and reliable operation via touchscreens, are also needed. 

A new generation of powerful ARM SoCs (System on Chip), designed originally for consumer tablets and smartphones, also provide benefit in industrial applications. In addition to their powerful computing performance they feature impressive graphics and a variety of dedicated interfaces and communication options. 

Thanks to this high level of integration and the use of energy-efficient interface technology they boast an extremely low power requirement of just a few watts – paving the way for smaller and more cost-effective system designs, because they already integrate lots of components and also due to the fact that only small passive cooling solutions will be required to deal with the small amount of heat to be dissipated. Ultimately, more robust and more reliable solutions with lower maintenance can be created, which results in an overall better total cost of ownership. A further advantage is that they are usually suitable for use in the extended temperature range of -40°C to +85°C which further simplifies robust system design. Additionally, their extensive range of interfaces can help to reduce bill of materials costs.  

The simplest way to design-in these new ARM processors is by using standard boards. Solution in the Pico-ITX and Mini-ITX form factors are already available for this. If individual designs are required – for tablets or handheld-HMIs, or dedicated I/Os and communication interfaces, which have to be integrated individually and in a space-saving manner, Computer-on-Modules provide the right solution, combining the freedom of a full-custom design with the stability of a finished board solution. 

SMARC – a purebred COM standard
The new Smart Mobility ARChitecture (SMARC), is the first purebred manufacturer-independent specification from the Standardised Group for Embedded Technologies (SGET) for ARM SoC-based modules. SMARC describes flat, ultra low-power Computer-on-Modules for extremely compact, low-power designs. These modules enable the creation of particularly slim designs with a total height of just under 1cm. On the electrical side, SMARC modules have a total of 314 pins. Effectively, the standard offers 281 I/O signal lines, meaning that numerous dedicated interfaces can be specified interoperably. SMARC can, therefore, support a wide range of dedicated ARM and SoC processors which, in turn, correspond to the diversity of ARM processors. 

This is reflected in the range of SMARC modules available today. Currently, a choice between module families with ARM Cortex A8 or ARM Cortex A9 designs are possible. The offer ranges from modules with Freescale’s i.MX6 family which is extremely scalable with single, dual and quad core processors includes the ultra-low power Texas Instruments Sitara AM3874 and is rounded off with the NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor with powerful graphics.

Application-ready solutions 
OEMs today should be looking for application-ready solutions to meet the need to acheive ever faster times-to-market. Hardware services which the manufacturer provides, and which can also include full-custom designs based on ARM SoC modules, offer a good solution. Additionally, the hardware manufacturer is called upon to carry out extensive software support, as due to the very special interface design of ARM SoCs both the hardware and the software require much more dedicated coordination than is necessary with generic x86 platforms. 

Service starts right at operating system level. The operating system should also meet the requirements of a slim solution with a small memory footprint. OS images should therefore only integrate those function blocks which the application requires. Application-specific, customised configurations of Linux, Android or Windows Embedded Compact 7 are, therefore, nearly always needed on most new OEM products. This does not necessarily differ from the demand with x86 systems. However, in addition, the OS structure has to be aligned exactly to the specific interfaces of each application solution together with the specific I/Os which the chosen SoC then actually integrates. Developing drivers and integrating them into a functional working OS image is a further challenge. 

It proves a great help for OEMs if they can cooperate with the SMARC module manufacturer for the standard platforms, so that they can have their specific drivers developed and integrated into their own specific OS image. This means that within the actual application, hardware-related software services have gained in importance compared to how it was with x86 designs. So, customers being able to also obtain these software services from their hardware manufacturers as a further building block, is the answer. 

The most efficient solution is if the embedded manufacturer offers ‘one stop’ hard- and software support. This results in a single point of contact for any hardware, OS and driver issues which exploits the synergy effects and ensures highest efficiency and quality. Some companies, such as Kontron, are therefore offering in-house hard- and software support and can deliver application-ready platforms to their customers, starting with the module and culminating in complete individual system designs. 

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