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Front End I Advantech WPC 2013

The age of things

Steve Rogerson reports from the Advantech World Partner Conference in China

The growth of intelligent communications technology is bringing with it a vast increase in the use of electronics with the Internet of Things, M2M and smart city markets set to blossom. This creates tremendous opportunities for manufacturers in all markets and one which Advantech, for example, is keen to grasp as can be seen from it dedicating its World Partner Conference in November to the smart city concept.

At the event in Suzhou in China, the

Taiwanese company was confidently predicting a doubling of its turnover to $2bn within the next five years as it strives to take advantage of this rapidly expanding market. “There will be 40 billion connected devices by 2020,” president Chaney Ho told the conference. “Most of these devices will be sensors, SoCs and MCUs. They will connect to the cloud through edge computers; there will be five billion of them.”

Nandan Nayampally, an ARM vice

president, added: “We are seeing today that billions of sensors are being shipped. They are going somewhere, they are going into these devices. They are going into healthcare monitors, into smartphones and so on.”

And Steen Graham, who is Intel’s

director of embedded sales in the Asia Pacific region, said: “This is our time for this industry. We are going from linear growth to exponential growth. I have seen some tremendous embedded devices that

6 December 2013/January 2014

really enrich people’s lives. We are at the dawn of a new era.” However, if this market is to move

forward, Hu Weiwu, chief architect of Loongson, a family of general-purpose MIPS64 CPUs developed at the Institute of Computing Technology in China, believes that a unified technology platform for MCUs is needed that will cut through the battle that is brewing between Intel and ARM.

“In computers you have Intel and

Microsoft, in handheld there are ARM and Android,” he said, “but there is no such platform for MCUs. MCUs are everywhere and they will become the way to create a unified platform for developing the Internet of Things. And we need a unified platform.”

He said such a platform could exist in everything from water meters to electric motors to machine tools to intelligent doors. And it needed to be scalable from milliwatts to tens of watts.

“A low-level virtual machine is needed to hide differences between ARM, x86, Mips and so on,” he said. “There needs to be a friendly GUI. And it needs to be open source so anyone can connect but be well organised to avoid fragmentation.” Another problem is connectivity. Alpha Chen, Advantech’s vice president for i- connectivity, said in the industrial market alone 160 million connections would be rolled out between now and 2017. “All the verticals need to be

connected,” he said, “but we have to look Components in Electronics

at the meaningful verticals that can make us money.” The top three industrial markets for connectivity he said were power and energy at 12%, automotive at 10.4% and food and beverage at 9.2%. Behind these came semiconductors and electronics at 7.4% and transportation and traffic monitoring at 6.1%. Advantech at the moment lies tenth with a 1.7% market share. Siemens and Belden have nearly half the industrial connectivity market between them, followed by Cisco and Moxa. Advantech’s share brings in $24m of income. “In the next few years, we are aiming to

grow to $100m,” said Alpha Chen. “We want to achieve this in the next couple of years.”

The key technologies the company will use to achieve this are managed and unmanaged switches, Ethernet converters, and wireless access points. The main verticals that will be targeted are traffic and transportation, industrial automation, surveillance, and medical. When it comes to smart cities, Advantech product manager Ethan Chen believes wireless sensor networks have become the hottest topic. “They are low power but highly reliable communications networks,” he said. “They share real-time data for things such as environment monitoring, looking at CO2 levels, room temperatures, air conditioning and so on.”

He said they could also be used for intelligent parking systems, guiding motorists to free spaces. “You can use them to connect the whole city underground to show parking areas all around you,” he said. However, he said such a project would be too costly initially for larger cities and

would be installed first in what he called second and third tier cities.

“The idea is to go for the smaller cities first,” he said. “It would not be possible for a huge city like London. That would need to be done step by step, maybe doing a small area first.” However, he said that a wireless sensor network collecting video information and more could hit problems with data storage. “The most important thing is the storage,” he said.

On form factors, Advantech is pushing the UTX 88 by 108mm size for M2M applications, and the company also promises that it can turn round custom designs in a short time. “Industrial motherboards can typically only fit 40% of embedded applications, so your customers have to look for customisation, but that can cost a lot of time and money,” said the company’s Vincent Chen. “So we have a range of motherboards to meet different vertical markets. This can hugely reduce your partners’ efforts.”

And his colleague Betty Yang added: “In 35 days we can do an integrated solution for vertical markets in cloud computing and IoT. To satisfy customer’s needs, we have software built in. We can integrate software tools and peripherals. We are a one-stop integration source.” And Vincent Chen said: “Even though

we offer a lot off the shelf, some customisation is almost inevitable, so we play a consultant role to help our customers make a decision.” On UTX, Yang said: “This is the smallest embedded motherboard. People are looking for boards that are smaller in size and still support longevity. This is perfect for M2M applications.” ■

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