The duality of low power: Design challenge and opportunity for growth: Q&A with Mitch Little, VP, Worldwide Sales & Applications Engineering, Microchip Technology
Users’ expectations that their devices must be powerful, portable, and extremely intuitive are putting greater burdens on power systems and the engineers designing them. Mitch explains how low-power technologies, especially those that enable smart energy control, present opportunities for innovation and explores how other current demands are evolving embedded applications.
ECD: What are the biggest technical challenges Microchip’s customers are dealing with right now?
LITTLE: The biggest technical challenges for our customers remain time to market for new ideas, and then keeping the new ideas coming. Some of the specific areas where embedded systems designers are facing particular challenges stem from the demands they face for products with higher functionality in smaller form factors, along with lower power consumption yielding longer battery life and more intuitive display technologies, which are increasingly moving from traditional consumer applications to a broad spectrum of embedded applications.
Users have come to expect improved interfaces in all of the products they purchase and interact with. This includes the expectation for touch-sensing interfaces, as well as technologies that give us bigger, brighter, and better displays.
The iPhone and iPad are examples of this. With fewer dollars being spent on consumer products, a high-quality user experience is expected and demanded. Also, portable electronics are increasing in sophistication. The computational horsepower is increasing. This puts a great demand on the power system. Typically, these systems are battery-powered. In order to provide a sufficient application lifetime, the system’s power consumption must be reduced.
To drive the growth of these applications, power system development and advancement are essential. However, lowering power consumption while providing acceptable performance is challenging, as low power and high performance are opposing forces. Consequently, low-power development becomes critical for the growth of these applications.
Microchip has many innovative semiconductor products that can help designers create these applications. Our eXtreme Low Power (XLP) PIC microcontrollers have very low active and sleep power consumption, along with high levels of integration in small packages. This XLP technology allows us to adopt more advanced processes, while keeping sleep leakage currents low, which in turn reduces active power consumption – providing the best of both worlds, in terms of the lowest overall power consumption.
As for human interface, we have a broad portfolio of touch sensing, graphical display, and audio technologies. For example, our microcontrollers provide solutions for everything from simple, segmented LCDs to rich graphical displays. Segmented LCD is used in a wide variety of applications, ranging from meters to portable medical devices to thermostats to exercise equipment, while graphical displays include everything from simple monochrome LCDs to full-color WVGA user interfaces.
Our mTouch portfolio of touch-sensing solutions works in conjunction with our vast microcontroller portfolio to enable everything from capacitive buttons and sliders all the way up to projected-capacitive touch screens with multitouch capabilities. In some cases, we have integrated the peripherals for driving graphics displays and capacitive touch sensing into a single microcontroller.
ECD: As you look ahead to the future, which markets and technologies present the most interesting opportunities?
LITTLE: It is widely believed that a good portion of the growth for semiconductor companies will come from energy-related and low-power technologies, including applications in the telecom, automotive, industrial, and consumer electronics markets. As illustrated in Figure 1, technologies that enable the smarter use of energy are particularly high-growth areas, including the digital control of power supplies and digital power conversion, digital lighting, electronic motor control, and digital control in solar power inverters. Additionally, technologies that enable consumers to monitor and control their power consumption, such as Google PowerMeter, as well as the advanced metering devices and other technologies being deployed in the emerging smart grid, are all increasing in demand.
Consumer mobile devices are growing in huge leaps and, as the smartphone evolves and tablets expand, are expected to drive an ever-increasing demand for embedded semiconductors.
Finally, medical innovations are bringing good opportunities, including home health care and telemedicine, portable diagnostic devices, and disposable medical electronics.
ECD: What is your assessment of the growing demand for ubiquitous connectivity, and how does it affect your product development plans?
LITTLE: Embedded applications have evolved from systems that operated in isolation or within closed networks, such as those in automobiles, to the increasingly widespread adoption of many wired and wireless networking technologies, including the ever-expanding “Internet of Things.” On the wired side, we have seen the strongest growth in USB connectivity, followed by Embedded Ethernet. Microchip has proliferated USB integration throughout our entire portfolio of 8-, 16-, and 32-bit PIC microcontrollers to enable maximum flexibility for designers to choose the best MCU for their applications. Additionally, we have many options for both integrated and two-chip Ethernet connectivity with our MCUs.
On the wireless side, we formed our Wireless Products Division several years ago to address the rapidly growing demand for connecting our microcontrollers to the wireless world. We have found that our customers are widely adopting wireless connectivity in three main areas – Embedded Wi-Fi, IEEE 802.15.4/ZigBee, and the utilization of the unlicensed, sub-GHz networking bands. Accordingly, we are steadily growing our wireless portfolio of enabling products around these three technologies in the form of radio transceivers, software protocol stacks, agency-certified modules, and development tools that work seamlessly with our existing microcontroller development platforms.
ECD: What development tools and software support does Microchip provide for the wide range of 8-, 16-, and 32-bit microcontrollers?
LITTLE: Microchip supports all of our 8-, 16-, and 32-bit microcontrollers with a single Integrated Development Environment (IDE), including all of our more than 800 PIC microcontrollers and dsPIC digital signal controllers. Last month, we introduced our next-generation MPLAB X IDE, which is now based on the open-source NetBeans platform. This platform enables us to support embedded development using all three major operating systems – Windows, Mac, and Linux – along with a number of other useful new features, such as call graphs and the ability to debug multiple simultaneous targets.
In addition to our IDE, Microchip continuously improves the capabilities of our hardware debugging tools while offering lower-cost, entry-level development tools that also support all of our 8-, 16-, and 32-bit PIC microcontrollers. And we recently acquired HI-TECH to streamline our compiler offering for our 8-bit PIC microcontrollers. Our large portfolio of in-house hardware and software development tools is complemented by a broad ecosystem of third-party tool providers.
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