PC/104 and PC/104-Plus Market Outlook

European PC/104 vendors are now experiencing a recovery from the recent minimal investment period and started reporting growth. These vendors used the downturn to develop new products and business strategies, and to seek new business partners. Some of these partners are multinational system integrators seeking new technologies, new solutions, and new products. They are not yet easily attracted to acquire these often modestly sized companies and it seems premature to declare that the industry is in a full consolidation mood, but there is pressure and it’s growing.

Partnerships among smaller vendors, often carrying similar or overlapping product offerings, is also common. Investment capital is shared among the partners and used efficiently. New channels are open and tier programs abound. Economies of scale may be realized, and the cost of development may be distributed among participants. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to believe in the efficacy of such partnerships, as vendors often push their own offering when a co-opted product line from a partner would be a better fit. Often, such partnerships go stale and the real market selection comes into play.

Expectations for the PC/104 and PC/104-Plus markets are cautiously optimistic, in spite of high energy prices and the high cost of European currency (Euro) on world markets. Even so, most economies in Europe aim to keep or even increase the growth seen in 2004. According to an unofficial survey of 20 European CEOs, budgetary spending is going to increase by approximately 6 to 10 percent.

Applications using PC/104 and PC/104-Plus technology
Kontron Embedded Modules (Germany) supplies an EPIC/CE board, which combines full PC/104-compliant I/O expansion with motherboard-style, front-side feature access. The CPU board itself, underneath the added I/O, arrives with almost all front-panel functionality, which avoids cabling and associated costs.

This EPIC/CE hosts an Intel ULV Celeron processor clocked at 400 or 733 MHz. An SDRAM-SODIMM socket with 512 MB capacity allows the use of standard notebook memory and an ATX power supply (or 5 V only as an option).

The board uses the Intel 815 chipset, ICH4, with interfaces that include DVO, CRT, LCD (JILI), and 4x COM ports (1x RS-232 DSUB, 3x RS-232 with 1x as RS-422/485 internal). The graphics controller, which is included in the chipset, performs with up to 12 MB VRAM UMA. Each unit includes the JILI-Interface (JUMPtec Intelligent LVDS Interface) for easy connection to displays. The JILI automatically recognizes which display is connected and sets all video parameters accordingly. All EPIC are plug-and-work enabled to further reduce time-to-market.

In a newly published study of embedded motherboards, Venture Development Corporation (VDC) projects rapid and sustainable growth for EPIC form factor boards. Eric Gulliksen, embedded hardware practice director at VDC, said that current data suggests that this market will grow from approximately $700,000 in 2004 to slightly more than $8 million in 2005, and then show an anticipated Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) higher than 32 percent over the period of 2005 through 2008. Gulliksen also said that acceptance of EPIC should be beneficial to the PC/104 industry. EPIC will add to the choices of CPU board configurations that are available for use with PC/104 expansion modules, providing a middle ground between EBX and PC/104 CPU modules.

EPIC's emphasis on I/O flexibility makes this form factor an ideal choice for many applications, particularly in medical instrumentation and military/aerospace.

INCOstartec (Germany) offers a combination unit, the PCC300 V1.5, which comprises a PC/104-based computer board and a LCD panel. The single-chip CPU is AMD’s 386 or 486 (optional) running at 33 to 100 MHz. The panel has a monochrome or color STN display with 320x240 resolution. Standard interfaces include 3x COM, LPT, Ethernet, FD, and an EIDE interface that is very useful when CD-ROM or CompactFlash drives are used. Typically, the board is populated with 2 to 16 MB DRAM and with 1 to 4 MB Flash. Embedded GS BIOS allows customization and the PC/104-bus allows scalability and I/O extensions. The unit comes with an optional INCO graphic library.

DIGITAL-LOGIC (Switzerland)) offers the MSMP3SEG and MSMP5SEG, two completely new PCs based on the PC/104-Plus format. The boards are based either on a highly integrated smartCoreP3 CPU with a 300/700 MHz Pentium III processor, or a smartCoreP5 with a 166/266 MHz Pentium MMX; both versions feature a 256 KB L2 cache. These boards are remarkable for their extensive storage capabilities, including expandable main memory from 32 MB to 256 MB SDRAM. Other standard features include keyboard/mouse, IDE, FD, LPT, 2x USB, and 4x COM ports.

These PCs support Watchdog and include EEPROM and an IrDA port. An ATI RAGE Mobility M1 video controller with 8 MB of integrated video memory provides optimal graphics support capable of working with the newest TFT LCD technology using a 24-bit interface (3 V/5 V). It supports up to SXGA resolutions of 1280x1024 pixels and a maximum color depth of 256 bits. The DirectX and OpenGL-compatible graphics interface allows these boards to be used in state-of-the-art 2D, 3D, and DVD applications. Two images can be displayed simultaneously with a combination of LVDS plus CRT, DVI, or TV-out.

The boards run under Windows 98/NT/2000/XP/CE and other mainstream OSs such as Linux, QNX, and RTXDOS. They operate with a 5 V/2.5 A power supply in the standard temperature range of –25ºC to +50ºC. Optionally, the products are available with an extended temperature range of –40ºC to +70ºC. DIGITAL-LOGIC considers these modules to be the only Pentium III-based PC/104-Plus modules currently available on the market.

Ingenious design and the innovative passive or active cooling method, along with low-power consumption allow these boards to be used in a wide range of sophisticated applications where cost, robustness, and scalability play an important role. Applications include navigation, telecommunication, medical and measurement, aviation, aerospace, automotive, mobile, and Internet terminals.

Fastwel (Russia) supplies a MicroPC SBC that is based on the Geode GX1 CPU, clocked at 300 MHz. The board includes a 16-bit ISA-bus extension with a standard CAN interface, and 32 to 128 MB SDRAM. Also included is 18-bit CRT/TFT panel support, with resolution up to 1024x768.

The board is a fully featured SBC with an onboard 16 MB Flash disk and a CompactFlash socket. An EIDE controller is included to control FDD and HD. Onboard I/O includes 1x LPT1, 1x RS-232, 1x RS-232/422/485/IR, 2x CAN 2.0B, and 2x USB 1.0 ports. In addition, a 10/100Base-T PCI Fast Ethernet controller with an RJ-45 connector is included.

This SBC requires a +5 V ±5%, 1.2A maximum power supply. Shock/vibration is 20g/5g, with an operating temperature range of –40°C and +85°C.

Users can order the SBC either in PC/104 format or as a 3U CompactPCI board with a 4HP/12HP front panel, depending on the application and integrator choices.

Fastwel presented this interesting solution at the Electronica 2004 show in Germany and received a design award.

Design Contest
The 2005 Embedded Systems Conference San Francisco, being held March 6-10, will include a PC/104 Embedded Design Contest for the third year. Along with other vendors, some of the companies featured in this column sponsor or participate in the competition. We hope this year’s competition includes more European contenders. PC/104 Embedded Solutions will report the contest results in our next issue.

Companies mentioned in this column:

Kontron Embedded Modules: www.kontron-em.com
INCOstartec: www.incostartec.de
DIGITAL-LOGIC: www.digitallogic.com
Fastwel: www.fastwel.com
PC/104: www.pc104.org

. . . . .

Stefan Baginski is the European Representative of OpenSystems Publishing. Prior to OSP, Stefan held positions in General Electric at the Danforth Facility, Ontario Research Foundation, Sniffer Technology (network security, wireless) in Santa Clara, SAAB-Fairchild Electronic (avionics) in Södertälje, Sweden, and PEP Modular Computers (VME-Autobahn Project with Motorola) in Kaufbeuren, Germany. Stefan’s responsibilities progressed from System Engineer to Managing Director and CEO.

He received his B.E and M.E. in Engineering Science from the Technical University of Breslau.

Stefan’s professional affiliations include (past and present): Society of Manufacturing Engineers, American Management Association, Society of American Engineers, Association of Professional Engineers of the province of Ontario, Royal Engineering Association of Sweden, German Engineers Society, and VITA Europe.

For further information, e-mail Stefan at sbaginski@opensystems-publishing.com.