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Logic Design With the Future in Mind: Scalable MCU+MPU Cores

Growing competition in the electronics market has changed the expectation of electronics device manufacturers from relying on design cycles encompassing years to just months. This new pattern means that manufacturers often need to roll out new products while actively developing the next generation of products and increasing design diversity. Moreover, consumers are demanding more electronic device features and functionality, while also demanding competitive cost and low-power consumption. One-size-fits-all devices are also becoming less viable as users are seeking specific devices that best fit their lifestyles, work environments and use cases.

All these factors place additional burdens on the manufacturer’s engineering resources, since developing new models or enhancing product line diversity often means working simultaneously with several suppliers. In the case of embedded controllers, this also means that an engineer’s only option may be to work with a scattered array of software tools and spend excessive hours developing a reliable toolchain to integrate the necessary features and accessories. Often, the toolchain and supplier mashup is different for each product, ultimately leaving a design engineer spending less time creating enhanced features and differentiation from the competition. Instead, the focus turns to learning new software and hardware and troubleshooting an unfamiliar toolchain. Therefore, designers or system integrators can find themselves in a dilemma where they need to scale the performance, power requirements, costs, or features of a product or product line when resources are tight.

The aim of this article is to educate design engineers, developers and system integrators on how electronic product development can be made more scalable using Microchip’s enhanced ecosystem of 8-, 16-, and 32-bit MCUs, MPUs, and DSCs. This ecosystem includes design resources and toolchain components that enable code reuse and a substantially reduced learning curve for more effortless design, development, prototyping and production of the next generation of products.

Early Product Design and Prototyping

Early familiarization with a logic device and the development of a toolchain are essential steps, and often huge hurdles, during the early product design and prototyping phase. Typically, a designer will have to experiment with a range of logic devices before paring down the selection to a single device. From there, a designer must develop a toolchain specific to that device, finding ways to integrate the software libraries, programming languages and peripherals into a single enterprise software suite that may not be designed, or optimized, for that specific use. Though a flexible approach, this process is likely to consume a substantial amount of development time and resources. Potentially, it never allows for a true comparison of logic device options, nor a clear pathway to development and optimization.

Microchip offers scalable solutions, in the form of demo boards, development boards and a rigorously tested toolchain that can be used in any scenario from rapid prototyping to product design and testing. Moreover, Microchip’s development board options—either the low-cost and easy-to-use Curiosity Development Board series or the fully featured and extensible Explorer Development Boards—allow for code that is developed during early product design and prototyping to be used in later stages of a project as well. These development boards are available for Microchip’s 8-, 16-, and 32-bit MCUs so, if performance needs change, it is easy to scale to higher- or lower-bit MCUs without having to start development from scratch.

It is easy to scale features during development as the Curiosity and Explorer boards feature a mikroBUS™ socket that enables the use of a vast number of MikroElectronika Click boards™. Also, the Explorer boards are extremely extensible, offering connectors for PICtail™ Plus Daughter Cards and USB Type-C and Type-A support for applications using a USB MCU. The Explorer boards also leverage a socket for Processor Plug-In Modules (PIMs) to enable easy device swapping while finding the right MCU or DSC for the application.

Microchip’s MCUs are compatible with the full MPLAB® development ecosystem including MPLAB X Integrated Development Environment (IDE), MPLAB Xpress IDE, MPLAB XC Compilers and MPLAB Code Configurator. For example, a low-learning-curve and low-cost approach would be to start development with a Curiosity board and MPLAB Xpress IDE, a free and full-featured cloud-based IDE. For changes beyond early prototyping and ideation, a more fully featured and extensible Explorer board can be leveraged with MPLAB X IDE. With these level of options within the ecosystem, it is easy to scale a design through the prototyping and product design phase while staying prepared with functional code and proven hardware pre-production.

Production

It’s not uncommon while ramping up for production, and even after production has been initiated, that product performance requirements change from the original design requirements. This can happen during compliance testing, user beta testing, or even after a product has gone to market and initial customer feedback rolls in. If the production process has begun, major capital has already been committed, and last-minute changes can be extremely costly and resource intensive.

Typically, scaling power or performance of the logic hardware requires a nearly complete redesign and substantial software changes. However, this is not always the case, especially if the design team chose a supplier with a wide array of logic products in varying performance and power levels. For example, Microchip offers 8-, 16- and 32-bit MCUs, 32-bit MPUs and 16-bit DSCs. By leveraging Microchip’s logic ecosystem, much of the development effort can be retained while scaling from lower-performance to higher-performance logic or transitioning to more power-efficient or time-critical control performance.

Microchip also offers a wide range of Core Independent Peripherals, application-specific accessories, and MCU options that enable a designer to choose a hardware approach that delivers a precise and scalable solution that fits the application. This is a more resourceful choice as opposed to over-buying on performance or features to achieve a desired function set. 

Complete device sourcing can be done within a single supplier ecosystem, with logic devices, peripherals, accessories and tool-chain software available from one source. Therefore, a designer or system integrator doesn’t need to juggle a complex Bill-of-Materials (BOM) that relies on a diverse supply chain that may change throughout the production cycle. Instead, they can focus on optimizing the product design for product and performance.

Next Generation

Customizing products for a specific group of users is an increasingly viable approach for product design, instead of traditional one-size-fits-all single-product offerings. Some customers require the utmost performance and newest features, while others desire bare-bones and affordable solutions. Therefore, product portfolio diversity is now key to creating and maintaining a loyal customer base.

Whether creating smaller and more power-efficient versions of a product that also come at a lower price bracket or boosting performance by moving to cores with higher bits or even from an MCU to MPU, a scalable approach to product portfolio diversity is key to preventing a bloat of suppliers and sourcing headaches.

Moving to a lower-cost, and more power-efficient processor with a reduced feature set is relatively easy with Microchip. Much of the code and development can also be scaled down and then optimized for a smaller MCU, without having to go back and redevelop all the core functions and interface if a different MCU architecture or family was used. In many cases, the exact same toolchain, and much of the software, can be directly ported to the new project. Consequentially, this approach can enable simultaneous development of several devices in a portfolio without incurring the time or resource expense of leveraging several development teams. 

In the case of transitioning from an MCU to an MPU, the hardware adjustments are simplified as Microchip’s MPUs are available in System-On-Module (SOM) or System-in-Package (SiP) formats to eliminate many of the traditional board layout complexities that come with traditional MPU design. This feature removes the need to invest design resources in complex, high-speed PCB design and power management.

Application Examples

The scalability benefits of an expansive logic ecosystem, such as Microchip’s, can be nebulous when compared to current industry practices. The following are a few application examples illustrating an ecosystem that enables design and product portfolio scalability throughout the electronics industry.

Drone, or Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Video Camera Gimbals

Drones with cameras have transformed a niche hobbyist playground into a competitive field for filmmakers, real estate companies, artists, surveyors and wildlife videographers. Gimbals enable more stable video and, depending on the number of axes and performance, drone gimbals can support low-cost cameras for sports enthusiasts or incredible 8k high frame rate video for the next action movie.

At the lowest end, a drone gimbal may leverage an 8-bit MCU with a Core Independent Peripheral, or a 16-bit DSC for gimbal motor control. At the higher levels, a video production-grade drone gimbal may require more advanced real-time performance and feature integration, using a higher bit core (16-bit DCSs or 32-bit MCUs) with dedicated motor control peripherals or accessories for high-speed and more accurate performance.

Coffee Makers

Since coffee seems to fuel the world, and much of electronic product development, it makes sense that there is a diverse range of coffee machine products utilizing logic ecosystems. Low-cost simple button or switch designs with auto-shut off features are a likely option in most homes or small offices. Larger offices on tech giant campuses, on the other hand, may spring for high-volume coffee machines run by baristas, thereby replacing individual-use coffee machines that take up a good portion of the break room. 

Lower-cost models often use 8-bit MCUs with a simple set of peripherals and control, while more complex machines could use 32-bit MCUs or even MPUs depending on the complexity and features of the user interface. Some newer smart coffee maker designs even include a cloud-connected system. Adding smarts to a coffee maker would require an upgrade of MCU performance, which can be readily done within a scalable ecosystem.

Automobiles

There are many components within an automobile that require MCUs and DSCs, mainly the motor driven, control, and information systems. This array includes fan motors, infotainment displays, radio, back-up cameras, automatic windows, heads-up displays, programmable seat adjustments and more. Car models also range in the amount of functions and customizability that they offer, which also requires a wide scope of logic performance, size, power and reliability. 

For a car manufacturer, or contract designer working on electronic car parts, having the ability to leverage a range of MCUs, DSCs and peripherals to fit the variety of car component performance and cost requirements from a single supplier can be a huge advantage when expanding a product portfolio and scaling performance. With a growing aftermarket car culture, the code reuse capabilities of an expansive logic ecosystem can also lower the cost and reduce the design time on developing aftermarket customizations and upgrades for the newest line of vehicle models.

Conclusion

It is not uncommon throughout the design cycle or the growth of a product portfolio for electronics manufacturers to be able to grab a competitive advantage from scaling a product, product lines, performance or features. These typically require a huge investment in hardware and software development, with much of the engineering resource time lost to toolchain development and working with several suppliers with incompatible development processes. However, the Microchip ecosystem not only provides an array of logic performance options, but also a software toolchain that can enable unprecedented opportunities for code reuse and a learning curve that allows designers and developers to spend more time innovating with a product instead of exponentially increasing their workflow.



The information contained in this document is provided “AS IS”, for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as advice on any subject matter.