Modular Development Explained: SOCs, SOMs, and Embedded Solutions
When Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) launch a new device, success does not hinge solely on the merit of the idea. Similarly, a memorable design may support differentiation, but is hardly sufficient to secure a high adoption rate. Ultimately, the market accepts or rejects new products contingent upon their functionality. Above all else, consumers expect devices to be capable of executing functions associated with intended use.
The pivotal question when developing any new product is clear; what will make the device function? In most cases, the answer is an intricate web of electrical, mechanical, and software components working in harmony to perform complex tasks. This network of components, from sensors to circuitry, is referred to as the embedded system. Every device depends on its carefully architected embedded system to perform functions as expected. Thus, the importance of embedded systems cannot be overstated. A flawed embedded system is a flawed product.
Technological advances, and changing consumer expectations, are driving embedded systems to grow increasingly complex and interconnected. As M2M, IoT, and Smart device applications rise in prevalence, embedded systems face new challenges. The complexity of device development for the information era is amplified by a plethora of available EMS partners, embedded technology, and development strategies. An informed strategy will prioritize embedded systems as the lynchpin that secures a competitive end device.
A functional embedded system is the foundation of any successful product. The vast majority of embedded systems rely on circuit boards to act as the brain, directing other system components. In essence, Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) are the solution to embedded systems.
There are two primary strategies for developing circuit board solutions. Historically, a circuit board is designed from scratch to fit the specific form and function of its end device. This method, referred to as chipset or chip-down, allows for cost effective unit production, but often incurs high development, testing, and regulatory certification costs. Large OEMs favor this approach for its unending capacity for customization, but this is often cost prohibitive for all but the largest in their industry. Unless you are producing consumer devices for global distribution, the development costs associated with a chipset design may exceed the market potential of your device. This has driven low-mid volume OEMs to seek alternative strategies for developing embedded systems.
Recently, specialized OEMs have begun opting in favor of modular development strategies which utilize distinct, individual integrated circuits as the building blocks to create a unique embedded solution. The modular approach not only minimizes development costs, but can kickstart development by offering a foundational solution that is already fully developed, tested, and certified by the applicable regulatory agencies. For OEMs serving niche, regulated, or low-mid volume markets, modular strategies present an appealing alternative to traditional development strategies.
It is clear that high volume projects favor chip-down strategies while low volume projects lend themselves to a modular approach. But this raises the question, where is the cutoff point at which modular development becomes more cost effective? At what point is it economical for an OEM to absorb the high development costs of a chipset strategy in exchange for reduced unit costs?
One could concoct an elaborate formula comparing projected chipset development costs to module unit costs. There is no universal answer. Each device, and each OEM must consider different factors in making the decision. The best decision can only be made after thorough consideration of the risks and costs associated with regulatory compliance, product support, lifecycle unit procurement, and development costs. However, as a general rule, modular development is more cost effective for projects requiring less than 30,000 total devices. Conversely, as expected demand approaches or surpasses 50,000 units, chip-down development strategies become a more appealing option.
The Modular Strategy
When volume does not dictate the need for a chipset solution, modular development presents three distinct advantages.
1. EMS providers and modular developers offer solutions that come fully tested, certified, and ready to be integrated into your device.
Leveraging a fully developed modular solution means you can start development on day one, without concerns of product reliability or regulatory compliance.
2. Modular strategies propel products to market much more quickly than chipset counterparts.
Modular development allows OEMs to bypass the time intensive processes of development, testing, and certification speeds. When being first to market is essential for patent or market share purposes, modular solutions get your device to market faster.
3. Modular embedded solutions offer unrivaled longevity.
Not only are modules typically supported for long product life cycles, but interchangeability of components allows for modules to be updated individually as needed. The unique ability to exchange or update modules integrated into the solution facilitates easier product updates, lifecycle extension efforts, backwards compatibility, and the versatility to remain competitive no matter what changes come to the market.
Moreover, increasingly advanced embedded modules are capable of performing complete system functions. Rather than relying on a clunky chipset board design, a system’s entire list of functions can be performed by a module the size of a dime. Compact form factor no longer means sacrificing capabilities or reliability. Powerful processing, long battery life, unwavering reliability, and wireless connectivity are now available in extremely small form factor (15 mm x 33 mm). With no space going to waste, such compact modules are optimal for applications that necessitate a small lightweight solution.
The quintessential aspect of modular development is the pairing of modules with a custom baseboard. While a module delivers the key performance aspects (processing, memory, sensing, camera, or display control), the baseboard provides peripheral inputs and outputs necessary to connect your embedded solution to the broader embedded system. With virtually unlimited baseboard customizability, the same module can be repurposed to integrate into any device or network. This baseboard also provides the basis for easy product updates or component substitution. When new technology becomes available, OEMs can easily replace old modules with the most cutting-edge solutions without requiring baseboard replacement or update.
Implications of the Modular Approach
The advantages of a modular strategy are clear, but from here the development process grows more nuanced. Module is a blanket term used for a wide range of PCB components and solutions. A module incorporates multiple distinct components into a single (compact form factor) board. In selecting a specific modular for your device development it is important to consider the varying implications and functions associated with alternative module selections.
Any embedded module will feature a processor of some variety. Processors are the most basic building block of embedded solutions, delivering the computational capabilities necessary to function. Traditionally, Central Processing Units (CPU) are used to process critical system functions. But CPUs are increasingly challenged by Microcontroller Units (MCU) which offer similar computational power with baseline memory incorporated into the controller.
From this divergence arose a more comprehensive computing solution, the System on Chip (SOC). Like CPUs and MCUs, SOCs are the computing center of a PCB. While CPUs and MCUs only deliver processing and limited memory, SOCs also perform other key device functions. For example, a desktop computer PCB may have a CPU and separate components delivering graphics, audio, and memory. An SOC offers all these functions in a compact package. In essence, an SOC constitutes a single chip that is capable of performing a range of system functions.
The primary advantage delivered by SOCs is the incredibly compact size. Only slightly larger than a CPU, SOCs deliver functionality that would otherwise require a fully developed Single Board Computer (SBC). Leveraging these advances in computational modules, embedded innovators are developing new ways to integrate system functions into a device. Despite the range of functions SOCs are capable of performing, they require developers to invest in integrating the solution into their embedded system. Much like chipset development using a CPU or MCU, development with an SOC can be costly and time intensive.
Less complex devices may simply utilize an SOC to develop their embedded solution. But increasingly intricate systems demand a more comprehensive solution. Enter the System on Module (SOM), a solution which takes a CPU, MCU, or SOC and combines it with a baseboard to offer a comprehensive solution. SOMs are ideal for applications that require stringent regulatory compliance, rapid time to market, and low development costs. Capable of performing complete system functions, SOMs provide a balance between versatility and standardization. While standard enough to be utilized across a range of applications without requiring a chip-down level redesign, they also offer the versatility to be configured to optimize performance.
SOMs offer a veritable plug-and-play solution for OEMs that need to streamline the development process. Especially appealing as a fully tested and pre-certified solution, the market for SOM solutions is growing rapidly. Typically more expensive than SOCs per unit, the costs of SOMs are offset by substantial savings when it comes to implementation. As a pre-verified solution, SOMs minimize risk and time to market while offering a versatile platform for device development. SOMs are the answer to streamlined modular development.
Deciding how to best develop embedded solutions has become a process of wading through alphabet soup. Deciding between CPUs, MCUs, SOCs, and SOMs requires intimate knowledge of both intended product specifications and embedded technology. At each step of the way, OEMs must make choices that will shape the fundamental functional capabilities of their device.
This decision will be made based on the specific requirements of your project. Alternative modular configurations lend themselves to the performance of different tasks. While an SOC may offer striking simplicity for a sleek, practical device, a SOM will deliver the power and reliability for the performance of highly complex mission critical tasks. The nuanced nature of developing embedded solutions is driving OEMs to seek qualified partners in Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) providers. Such collaborations provide OEMs with an alternative perspective and access to industry experts that can help guide development to remain on schedule and under budget.
There is a module for any application, but the right solution can only be found by asking the right questions. Successful modular development starts with clearly defined system requirements, functions, features, and expectations. Armed with deep product knowledge and support from your module provider, OEMs can ensure they select the right solution for their application.
The era of the CPU appears to be drawing to a close. Even OEMs who continue to utilize the traditional chip-down development approach are gradually shifting towards utilizing MCUs and SOCs as the base block for their PCB. This shift is driven by increasing demand for electronics that are portable, reliable, and multifunctional. The space saved by integrating multiple features into a single board frees room for increased memory, wireless connectivity, and new features. As consumers and businesses alike seek solutions that are mobile, intuitive, and comprehensive, OEMs will be pushed to stay ahead. This is driving the rise in prevalence of SOMs, the versatile building blocks of intricate embedded solutions.
Beacon EmbeddedWorks launches new System on Module based around NXP’s i.MX 8M Mini and Nano processors. The SOM delivers integrated security, low power consumption, small form factor, and the powerful processing necessary for video and graphics applications. As a high performance solution for the most demanding applications, the Beacon EmbeddedWorks comes fully tested and certified so your project can hit the ground running.
For more information download the i.MX 8M Mini and i.MX 8M Nano product brief.
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