The need for technological refresh

Small, embedded form factors such as PC/104, EPIC, and EBX, are ubiquitous in defense, medical, telecommunication, and industrial applications where long-term availability is mandated. Many of these applications go through a rigorous certification and approval process. The time required to move a project from conceptual development to testing, and subsequently to full production, can approach 3-5+ years. When the testing is complete, the expectation is that embedded product used in the application will be available for an additional 5-10 years with some medical and military applications lasting for 25 years or more.

For their PC/104 and other small form factor parts, manufacturers select high-quality components from multiple vendors, seek long-term commitments from silicon suppliers, offer last-time buy opportunities, and maintain deep stocks of critical components to ensure long-term product availability. Many of those vendors offer life-cycle management programs to ostensibly save OEMs time and money by eliminating product redesigns. In addition, embedded manufacturers have improved their time to market for new platforms and new derivatives of existing product. In tandem, there are increasing promises from embedded manufacturers to shepherd product “from cradle to grave” and to back up newly introduced products with a longevity guarantee.

Regrettably, the length of time associated with “from cradle to grave” appears to be contracting. There are considerable pressures in the ability to sustain these products over the span of 10 to 15 years or more, due to:

  • Early component obsolescence
  • The ever-present trend towards an increasing number of components on a platform (and concomitant increase in the probability that a component obsolescence could, in turn, cause the obsolescence of the embedded computer board)
  • Consolidations or mergers
  • Changes in business conditions or otherwise

Furthermore, the length of time required to design-in an embedded computer platform exacerbates the ability to support the product selected over the OEM’s targeted product life cycle.

To sustain a product over time requires embedded computer manufacturers to continue their efforts to identify long-lived components and ensure a long-term, stable product supply. These requirements reinforce the need for embedded manufacturers to provide open specifications, supported by multiple vendors, to ensure that a suitable option is available in case business conditions prompt early obsolescence from a single board supplier. In today’s high-paced environment, the OEM would be wise to allocate resources and have a sustaining plan that includes the inevitable technological refresh to either upgrade or replace selected board-level product.

The nature of the problem: Long-term component availability vs. long development cycles
There are multiple drivers impacting long-term embedded computer availability. As mentioned, early component obsolescence due to changes in business conditions often forces a board-level manufacturer to either render a product obsolete earlier than originally scheduled or to move forward with a redesign. At present, there is the move towards Restriction of the use of Certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS)-compliant products and the changeover by many silicon vendors from a leaded to an RoHS-compliant manufacturing process. That affords the opportunity for some firms to obsolete less profitable leaded component lines. After all, why expend resources to change your manufacturing process if volumes do not warrant? In addition, technological advances will continue to affect the availability of today’s silicon. The physical size of integrated circuits will continue to get smaller with improvements in chip-scale and wafer-scale packaging, and functionality previously implemented on several chips will integrate into single-chip, multi-chip, or System-on-Chip module solutions. These improvements, in turn, will serve to continue the trend of packing additional functions and features onto embedded computer manufacturers’ current and future products. With the increased number of components, there is an associated rise in the probability that the board may go obsolete or will need to be upgraded to address the obsolescence at the component level.

The OEM’s long development cycle exacerbates the problem. For example, the FDA approval process for a Class II medical device consists of multiple phases. A medical device manufacturer starts out with strategic regulatory, scientific, and safety planning in the pre-clinical phase. This process eventually moves into full-fledged “pivotal” clinical trials, then moves into intensive coordination of clinical and post-marketing safety data collection, processing, and reporting. The documentation associated with these phases is massive. Military device development is no less time consuming and resource intensive. Some military applications follow the documentation protocol equivalent to the FDA certification process. Intensive HALT, HASS, extended temperature, and shock (hammer/drop/barge) testing often follows this protocol. The latter series of tests simulate conditions associated with torpedo or missile attacks against military armament that contains embedded computer devices.

It is a rare event for most industrial applications to be quickly developed. Although not burdened by regulatory requirements, in most industrial applications there are multiple environmental conditions and development issues that must be taken into account before moving into production. Environmental issues include the temperature and humidity requirements of the system. Development concerns include packaging requirements, OS selection, application software development and testing, and the market development associated with the device.

As a result, we have board-level manufacturers looking for long-lived components and a “guarantee” of long-term availability from IC suppliers. However, high-end embedded motherboards can take 12 or more months to develop, test, and deploy. Complicating matters, in most cases, board designers do not immediately analyze newly released ICs and move forward with a new design. Therefore, it could be quite far along the silicon vendor’s guaranteed availability timeline before the board-level manufacturer has their embedded product available. Even with a five-year availability guarantee (from the date of new silicon introduction), by the time an embedded computer board manufacturer designs and deploys their product and the OEM goes through their development and certification process, there is a high probability that the silicon originally selected will have reached the end of its targeted product life cycle.

As depicted in Figure 1, the IC Manufacturer (ICM) introduces their new component at time(0) while the Embedded Board Manufacturer (EBM) selects that component at time(1). The EBM takes approximately one year to design-in the ICM’s component bringing us to time(2). The OEM selects the EBM’s embedded computer at time(3) and spends three years going through development and certification bringing us to full production at time(6), just following the ICM’s expected End-Of-Life (EOL).

Figure 1

The nature of the solution:
Open specifications, multiple vendors, and periodic/staged technological refreshes by OEMs and end users

We can expect continued evolution of embedded systems during the next few years. There is the inevitable trend towards higher performance processors and advancements in memory and I/O bandwidth. FPGAs and switched fabrics, notably PCI-Express, will play an increasingly important role in future development efforts. The RoHS initiative will influence component availability while simultaneously introducing new components. As usual, the development and deployment of new technology will displace legacy, and currently available integrated circuits.

OEMs will continue to select and develop around board-level products that may surpass the silicon supplier’s guarantee. Accordingly, OEMs deploying embedded computer products should have a formal product life-cycle strategy during their sustainment phase that includes planned, routine, and technological refresh stages. The technological refresh stage is an opportunity to cut in upgraded product to address component obsolescence issues at the board level. In addition, it is an opportunity for the OEM to enhance additional functionality and/or features that may be available as a result of upgrades made to product stemming from the board-level manufacturer’s integration of a replacement component or migration path option to address obsolescence issues.

Embedded computer manufacturers must continue to do their part to sustain product over the targeted life cycle of their OEM customers. Migration options offering form/fit/function solutions are generally not drop-in replacements. For example, a new video chip will invariably require a new board layout, an updated driver, and perhaps a change in the connector scheme. An OEM may need to update their software, change their connector configuration, or even update packaging to accommodate a board vendor’s change. Board-level manufacturers need to better understand the impact that even minimal board-level changes have on specific OEM applications and should endeavor to supply true form, fit, and function upgrade paths that fit with the technological refresh requirements of end users.

In summary, as a first step towards ensuring long-term availability, we have open-standards-based architecture supported by multiple board-level manufacturers, which allows OEMs to select from multiple vendors. Additionally, these board-level suppliers need to continue their efforts in offering life-cycle management programs that mitigate product redesigns. Keep in mind that component obsolescence will occur, and the board-level supplier must do their part by offering either a revision to the original platform or an upgrade path to accommodate the OEM’s form, fit, and function requirements. OEMs will need to allocate significant resources to allow for the periodic technological refreshes that will invariably arise due to component and board-level obsolescence.

. . . . .

For more information, contact the consortium at:

PC/104 Embedded Consortium
490 2nd Street, Suite 301
San Francisco, CA 94107
Tel: 415-243-2104
Fax: 415-836-9094