A new core architecture developed by ARM could cut the cost of a 32-bit microcontroller (MCU) to as little as 30 cents for applications ranging from touchscreens and motor controllers to stoves and refrigerators.
Known as the Cortex M0+, the new core could potentially enable 32-bit MCUs to be cost competitive with 8- and 16-bit devices in certain situations. Freescale Semiconductor, which rolled out an MCU based on the ARM architecture this week, said it believes it can hit a 32-bit MCU price range of 30 cents to 50 cents by the end of 2013.
"It's an unbelievable price point," Tony Massimini, chief of technology for Semico Research, told Design News. "It puts them in the low-cost eight-bit market."
The new architecture builds on ARM's existing Thumb instruction set, which was used to improve compiled code density when it came out more than a decade ago. In the case of the M0+, the Thumb scheme compacts the 32-bit instruction set, enabling an MCU to employ less on-board Flash and therefore hit a lower price point.
"It's like a 16-bit architecture from the perspective of external memory storage," said Geoff Lees, vice president and general manager of Freescale's industrial and multi-market MCU business. "But as soon as it's in the core, it's executing as 32-bit instructions."
ARM licensed the technology to Freescale Semiconductor and NXP Semiconductor. On the day of ARM's official M0+ rollout, Freescale unveiled the Kinetis L series of MCUs, which will be based on the new ARM architecture. In a press release, NXP said it also plans to introduce M0+-based devices, adding that the architecture will "further accelerate the move away from 8/16-bit and toward 32-bit applications."
Freescale said that its choice of the 32-bit architecture was the result of subtle changes in the $15 billion-a-year MCU marketplace over the past two years. The semiconductor maker cited a 17% decline in 8-bit architectures in 2011, while 32-bit continued along the growth path that it's been on for several years.
"For the first time, 8-bit is being visibly impacted by the shift to 32 bits," Lees told us.
Freescale expects the Kinetis L series to serve in a wide variety of products. Power conversion products, such as battery chargers and uninterruptible power supplies, are likely to use the 32-bit MCUs. Large datacenters might employ the technology in server racks for fans that need to be networked. And engineers could opt for the new computing architecture in so-called smart buildings for fire panels, elevator controls, and smart lighting buses. The biggest area, however, may be home appliances -- coffeemakers, washers, dryers, refrigerators, freezers, and stoves.
"The whole trend toward touchscreen panels is setting the appliance market on fire," Lees said. "The other area is connected devices. There's going to be a lot more connected devices than in the past."
Up to now, the lowest-priced 32-bit devices typically cost about 50 cents. If MCU makers are able to cut that to 30 cents, then the new technology could have a major impact on the makeup of the MCU market, said Massimini of Semico Research.
"If it can come in at those prices, then it's going to be important for a lot of applications," Massimini said.