In the run-up to the virtual Embedded World 2021, congatec has already announced some of its forthcoming product launches. Three priorities are being set. The top priority is to enhance the COM-HPC-based edge and fog computing portfolio in respect of harsh environments. A new module with the NXP i.MX 8M Plus processor will be added to the SMARC product range in the low power segment. The presentations are topped off by the 8 Core AMD V2000 Computer-on-Module, which is currently the price and performance flagship for COM Express designs.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: What verticals are the target for congatec’s SMARC module with NXP i.MX 8M Plus processor?
MARTIN DANZER, CONGATEC: Our SMARC modules with i.MX 8M Plus product family are focusing on highly reliable industrial applications in combination with embedded vision, machine learning and AI, as well as advanced multimedia applications. That means they are targeting Industry 4.0/IIoT, visual inspection and monitoring systems, smart infrastructures and smart cities. However, other applications are also to be found in agriculture, construction and building automation. As you can see, the target markets are extremely diverse. We see one of the largest application areas to be in the wide range of HMIs. That’s because virtually every device today has a graphical user interface (GUI) and extended multimedia functions for increasingly immersive experiences, including in the low power and mobile device segments.
With all that in mind, the NXP i.MX 8M Plus processor range offers not only high computing power with an integrated NPU, but also a comprehensive set of embedded interfaces that are a perfect match for the SMARC form factor. This also makes this product range the ideal extension of our industrial AMD and Intel portfolio with a view to devices that are even more efficient, compact and mobile. Other areas of use are in rugged hand-held devices and for in-vehicle applications. Thanks to the camera and AI integration, the modules are also suitable for a multitude of different vision applications, for which we offer extended services along with our partner Basler.
Which platforms do you offer for embedded vision applications?
The availability of the SMARC modules with i.MX 8M Plus is another milestone in the company’s solution platforms for embedded vision systems. In 2019 we worked with Basler and NXP Semiconductors to produce a proof of concept for retail deep learning applications. This platform already incorporated artificial AI to fully automate the checkout process in retail. Given the increase in the use of contactless technologies in the course of the pandemic, this kit is now more relevant than ever, and the NXP i.MX 8M Plus processor offers an even more attractive set of features for these kinds of applications. These features include the two integrated image signal processors (ISPs) that are not available with the 8X, 8Mini or 8QM versions. As a result, inexpensive MIPI camera sensors and the NXP software ecosystem can be used for the ISPs, which reduces both cost and development effort.
What are the technical highlights of the new SMARC modules with i.MX 8M Plus processor?
One outstanding feature is certainly the 4 powerful Arm Cortex-A53 processor cores with additional neural processing unit (NPU), which adds up to 2.3 TOPS of AI computational power. They have been specifically developed for AI inference and can therefore process the data from the dual camera image signal processor very efficiently, for example. In this context, a key application field is gesture-based control systems, for example enabling touchless login into medical applications on intensive care computers for adjusting the administration of infusions.
In addition, the multimedia functions cover 3D/2D graphics acceleration as well as video decoding and encoding including H.265, so that camera streams can be sent directly to the network. High resolutions are becoming increasingly important in both inspection and monitoring systems for enabling better evaluation of details. The NPU can help with the preliminary analysis so that the raw data does not overload the network. Another interesting feature is the high-quality DSP for audio and voice functions. The combination with the arithmetic logic units allows user-specific speech recognition with around 40,000 different words, for example. In addition, unlike commercial solutions such as Alexa, Google or Siri, the DSP can be purely local with no cloud connection whatsoever, which can be very useful for contactless voice commands.
Moreover, thanks to inline ECC on the on-chip RAM, real-time control is also possible, even in particularly harsh environments and via Gigabit Ethernet with time-sensitive networking (TSN). The Cortex-M7 can also be used as a fail-safe unit, which is crucial for customer applications to be designed with fault tolerance in accordance with IEC 61508/IEC61511. If you consider this all-round service package and can implement further application-specific functions via PCIe Gen 3 as well as 2x USB 3.0 and 3x SDIO, you will have a highly reliable and robust Linux platform, which, depending on the variant can even be used in the industrial temperature range of -40°C to 85°C. Incidentally, the BSP primarily supported by us is based on the Yocto framework.
What are the benefits of the SMARC modules?
Like all computer-on-modules they appeal to developers because they are already application-ready and all functions have already been validated. This saves time and money spent on a company’s own development effort. There is also a comprehensive ecosystem for hardware and software available from the start, to facilitate and accelerate the development of the application. In the further course of the product life cycle, the customer can also achieve product scaling by means of performance variants. By simply replacing the module, and for extremely long-term availability, it is possible to switch to the next generation at minimal NRE cost whenever a processor is discontinued. Ultimately, this is how the ROI can be significantly extended. For this reason, COMs have also assumed a leading position in the market for embedded computer boards and systems. Another attractive feature of SMARC is the fact that this standard supports both Arm and x86. As a result, potential migration paths are extended even further.
So does the migration of one technology to another play a major role?
We are all familiar with the saying “Never change a running system” and developers are also very reluctant to deviate from a well-trodden path, as every change costs time and money. However, it is always good to keep your options, and your mind, open. Ultimately, nobody is hitched for life to a single technology or just one processor manufacturer. That’s the way it should be, and we want and need to constantly open up and smooth the possible routes to a change for our customers, because it is the ultimate long-term availability and evolution strategy that enable industrial customers to consistently equip their systems with the ideal processor technology that is at the cutting edge. In this context, it is interesting that in the low power computing segment Arm is becoming increasingly similar to x86 derivatives in respect of functional scope and performance, although the initial integration effort is always higher than for x86. Nevertheless, Arm is being seen more and more as an option, especially for high-volume projects. In this context, SMARC offers the unique opportunity to be able to choose between two architectures.
What is the most important growth market for 2021?
It’s the market for COM-HPC modules. COM-HPC will without doubt become the future standard for the high-end embedded computing market, and also offers the opportunity to address even more computing-intensive applications, which has only been possible to a limited extent so far. Above all, this will affect the robust edge and fog servers used in a wide range of industrial and critical network applications, and that are positioned above the edge device level in the network computing and communication pyramid.
They deliver highly reliably real-time cloud server performance to the edge computing market, in both on-premise and critical network infrastructure installations. Together, the fog and edge devices form the real-time edge computing market, which is rapidly gaining in importance in the field of embedded computing for harsh environments. The vertical industries include energy and utility companies, industrial manufacturing, robotics and controls, transport and logistics, and smart cities and buildings. Other areas of application are found in the health system, agriculture and retail, for connecting industrial wearables and in data centers. This is why alongside the SMARC module with i.MX 8M Plus, COM-HPC is our most important featured product at Embedded World.
What is the main focus of the COM-HPC presentations?
The official launch of the COM-HPC specification is imminent. Congatec provides the chairman for this PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG), so obviously we are already working flat out on the first products and associated ecosystem. We have already launched COM-HPC client modules with 11th generation Intel Core processors, and we will also be presenting these at the event. Featuring the latest technologies like fourth generation PCIe and USB, these Intel TGL-UP3 platforms offer a genuinely attractive set of features for high-end embedded applications. However, we are also already working on the first COM-HPC server modules and we will also be presenting our 2021 road map for this. For this completely new area of application, we had already presented our edge and fog server strategy for harsh environments at the end of last year.
We are intensifying this focus at Embedded World by highlighting those modules that are designed for particularly extreme temperatures of -40°C to +85°C. In this context we also offer all functions and services necessary for reliable operation under challenging ambient conditions. The range of solutions available includes robust designs with passive cooling, optional conformal coating against corrosion due to moisture or condensation, design support in the form of circuit diagrams and comprehensive documentation for functional blocks, suggested part selection and suitable components for maximum reliability in the extended temperature range.
This technical functional scope is also complemented by a comprehensive range of services covering temperature screening and high-speed signal compliance tests together with design-in services and all necessary training, to simplify the use of congatec embedded computer technologies. In the case of PCIe 4.0 and USB4 with Thunderbolt, signal integrity is actually no longer so easy to achieve, and this is where congatec can provide substantial support.
Where are the new COM-HPC modules with Intel Tiger Lake used?
Typical applications for the new industrial COM-HPC and COM Express modules are for any kind of robust applications, outdoor edge devices and installations in vehicles, which increasingly are also using embedded image processing and artificial AI functions, for which congatec also offers substantial support. Typical areas of application are industrial automation, railway traffic and other transport systems, smart infrastructures including mission-critical applications for example in the energy, oil and gas sector, mobile ambulance equipment, telecommunications or security systems, and video surveillance, to name just a few. They are therefore somehow also comparable to the solutions possible with the new SMARC module, only at a much higher level of performance.
congatec | www.congatec.com