Background on EPC
Rapid Tailored Development
For some years now, sales distribution in electronic components has already been experiencing structural upheavals. Given that the volume of the components on which all types of industrial application are based is continually growing at the rate of around 300 new products per day, and therefore becoming more complex and increasingly difficult to monitor, there has also been a marked rise in the technical consultancy aspect of the services offered by distributors.
Many distributors are experiencing a process of transformation where they are moving from just dealing in components to becoming total solution or solution proposal providers, with all the consultancy support involving engineers and other technical experts that this entails. As for the customers, they are under extreme pressure from their competitors, and this has a particular bearing on the time-consuming stages involving research and development. Put simply, there is a requirement for faster development times at a time when the complexity of applications and their components is increasing.
The Embedded Platform Concept
Market requirements have led to the development of the Arrow EPC (Embedded Platform Concept) system solution concept, which differs markedly from the manufacturer-based creation of reference and development boards that has become the norm from distributors. The focus is on the development of ideas (intellectual property) for industrial applications, their realisation and their lifetime management so-called customer application management. These systems are developed by highly trained technical experts with the aim of providing customers with a turnkey application and thereby bridging the existing gulf between complexity and fast lead times to market. Using this concept, semiconductor design is made considerably easier. Everything is directed at creating a clear competitive edge for Arrow customers in their target markets. Arrow demonstrates to its customers fully operating and tested systems that show them what an application might look like. Modular reference boards, along with suitably matched IP and service modules, form the basis of the EPC.
In technical terms, the concept addresses four areas of technology that are fundamental for the development of electronic systems:
- Microprocessor units (MPUs), microcontroller units (MCUs) and digital signal processors (DSPs)
- High performance analog
- High performance electronics & power management
- Programmable logic (FPGAs)
Microcontrollers, for instance, form the basis of many applications in a wide range of industrial segments, such as the automotive industry, telecommunications, consumer equipment electronics, IT and industry in general. According to Databeans, in 2007 microcontrollers had a five percent share of the total semiconductor market. Migration to highly complex microcontrollers with resolution in excess of 32 bits will increasingly define the industry in years to come, and this requires in-depth know how.
The total solutions envisage various CPU architectures and processor speeds, depending on customer requirements. Any type of interface may be incorporated, including USB, Ethernet, UART, SPI, 12C, 12S, CAN, RS485 and Audio. The systems are of modular design. There is a baseboard that can be configured via various CPU and power modules to provide whatever features are required. In terms of hardware, high-speed and low-end extensions add the final touches to the total system. Arrow has developed reference boards for the most important industrial applications. To realise these concepts, Arrow works in partnership with highly innovative development firms. The Embedded Platform Concept is not limited to individual technologies. Open source applications, such as embedded Linux, highlight how varied the range on offer is.
As an additional service in association with the conceptual development of the customer application and its realisation during the design stage and application management, customers can access all the engineering services they require, at any time from the initial idea through to ongoing servicing of their target markets. These services comprise the following items, among others:
- Hardware design
- Concept design of the total system
- Creation of prototypes
- Performance management tests and simulations
- Tests on boards without physical access (boundary scans)
- Identification and installation of suitable operating systems
- Identification and installation of suitable graphics software and drivers
- EMC design and adherence to compliance guidelines (electromagnetic compatibility)
- Product lifecycle management (PLM)
- Provision of board support packages (BSP)
- BoM management (Bill of Materials)
This means that companies that opt for these services can have access to extensive documentation material. The material includes, for instance, extensive user and design guides that explain and illustrate the application in detail in the style of a conventional technical data sheet or white paper. As a broadliner, Arrow offers an extensive range of semiconductors. For all the manufacturers involved, Arrow has access to the latest technologies available on the market, meeting current and future requirements relating to energy efficiency, for instance. Arrow customers receive technical product information before it is published, thereby obtaining an advantage over others in the market in terms of the information at their disposal. Their own development department is reinforced by Arrow staff, and customers can focus their energies more on their core business. Their core competence remains in their development department, but they no longer have to engage in the time-consuming quest for components.
A Comprehensive Concept for Embedded Developers
Arrow recently presented a concept for embedded development whose main purpose is to save time: the Embedded Platform Concept (EPC). This allows developers to create a complete system by combining carefully matched modules. All components, from the processor through the voltage controllers to the passive and mechanical components, are available from the same distributor.
During the course of a project, all system developers are faced with the task of defining the power supply. External factors play an increasing role here, and it is becoming more difficult to fall back on existing routine solutions. The desire for greater efficiency results in smaller batteries or longer battery runtimes and can enable a smaller device design. Another approach is to reduce cooling effort and, for mains-supplied devices, to ensure that the relevant energy-saving directives are observed. There is now a virtually unmanageable number of different possible solutions and a constantly changing range of new components for implementing these approaches in working hardware. All leading semiconductor manufacturers are competing to position their products in this environment. But how can developers channel this flood of possibilities into a single power supply solution that is right for their project?
Let us have a look at the typical approach currently used: a developer has chosen an appropriate processor platform based on the functionality of the device. For this processor an evaluation board is available from manufacturer A that enables the developer to create the software, including communication and graphics. This includes a 5 V mains adaptor and cost-effective voltage controllers installed on the board that provide 3.3 and 1.2 V for the processor. However, the external LCD requires a 12 V power supply for backlighting. In addition, the end customer requires that the device can be supplied via both the mains voltage and Power-over-Ethernet (PoE).
A DC-to-DC evaluation board quickly becomes available from manufacturer B, which supplies the necessary 12 V power supply for the lighting. The developer orders an evaluation board from manufacturer C for the PoE supply and one from manufacturer D for the mains supply, which are then quickly wired. It may be that the LCD no longer operates if the power supply unit from manufacturer D is used instead of the PoE board from manufacturer C.
Reducing time and costs
Basically there is nothing wrong with this approach. With it, the developer implements the circuits on the first custom layout. The next stage involves ordering the PCBs and the sample for the first prototype. However, this typical approach has taken a lot of time, and ultimately numerous components that are virtually impossible to obtain in Europe have been used on evaluation boards more often than not developed in Asia or the USA. Purchasing has also had to accept the components to be used. It may be that several distributors have become involved in the communication process with different manufacturers, since either one or the other evaluation board has been over-dimensioned and its circuit has had to be adapted.
EPC boards with products from Analog Devices
At Embedded World, held at the beginning of March in Nuremberg, Analog Devices (ADI) announced that it was participating in Arrow's Embedded Platform Concept. The embedded components with ADI components include a processor module with the ADSP-BF527 Blackfin, as well as a DC-to-DC board with the ADP1829 DC-to-DC buck controller and the ADP2107 step-down converter. In addition, according to a company statement, a complete kit with ADSP-BF527 Blackfin and DC-to-DC board will also be available.
In order to minimise this time and effort, Arrow has designed a concept for embedded development: the Embedded Platform Concept (EPC). This allows developers to create a complete system by combining carefully matched modules. It consists of a board system with standardised connectors and signal levels. All components, from the processor through the voltage controllers to the passive and mechanical components can be obtained from a single source. In making its selections, Arrow has worked closely together with the component manufacturers in order to avoid unusual components. At present, several processor modules, including the operating system, DC-to-DC power supplies, Power-over-Ethernet and mains supplies can be chosen. There are also motor control boards for BLDCs, steppers and asynchronous motors, as well as an industrial I/O board.
The circuits themselves were designed by Arrow or in close cooperation with the component manufacturers or the EPC partner network so as to also ensure detailed technical support through Arrow for German-speakers.
The power solution in detail
But how would the described project actually look with the EPC? Arrow provides the developer with a suitable processor module together with the appropriate LCD and a PoE board, which is optimised for high efficiency and simultaneously provides 3.3, 5 and 12 V. This PoE board is either supplied via the Ethernet connector or via a corresponding mains voltage module that observes the energy-saving directives.
The developer receives detailed documentation for all of these EPC boards, which enables these standard circuits to be easily adapted to the developer's requirements. If further technical support is required, the developer can contact specialist representatives for the relevant boards. All EPC boards can now be combined without any additional effort. With regard to samples, the supplied BOM is simply sent to Arrow. A check is carried out to ensure that all the components are included. Even all the board layouts are available as files. If required, Arrow can also develop complete embedded power supply solutions according to customer requirements in cooperation with the EPC partner network, whether in the form of a concept or the final developed circuit.