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Embedded Technologies Shape New Industrial Automation Style

By Wang Mingde
Published: Sep 07,2017

Figure 1
Figure 1

Embedded system is the core technology in the domain of automation, and it is currently being used in a large number of applications in vertical domains. With the specialization of automation industry trends, embedded system is being simultaneously advanced for versatile and specialized ends to shape a new style of automation.

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In the realms of sophisticated IT technologies, embedded systems applications are rapidly expanding. In addition to large amounts of consumer electronics products, a wide variety of other surrounding lifestyle IT systems, such as ATM and POS have led the way in embedded technologies, changed the automated domains of past embedded systems, been limited to simple signal controls and automated control applications, and then developed further added value.

The Effectiveness of Industrial Control Systems

On the basis of different types of applications, embedded systems can integrate advanced technologies and specific applications, including computer technology, communication technology, semiconductor technology, microelectromechanical technology, voice and image data transmission technology, and even a wide variety of different types of physical state sensors to shape leading products in a variety of domains.

Looking at industrial applications up to the present day, these types of products have generally been technologically intensive, have had high investment quotas and high decentralization, and have constantly innovated knowledge-intensive architectures. Simply put, application systems for embedded systems are different from those of regular PC platforms. Their platforms are mainly directed at the different types and designs of products, and the embedded systems widely differ from one another on the basis of their different applications.

The embedded systems of the past were characterized by single-functionality, simplicity, and small dimensions, and as long as they met those requirements, extra functions or components were unnecessary. Furthermore, choosing to use low-level CPUs and other components to reach the goal of increasing simplicity and cooling and power-saving requirements caused the types of embedded automated systems to undergo continual change and diversification.

In the past efficiency was not particularly meaningful for the majority of embedded systems. When a particular application had to finish a task at a given time, excess performance was not of much assistance to production capacity and would even increase power consumption. Discussing this from a few directions, first of all, from the standpoint of industrial applications, embedded processors primarily just take the operators' instructions and convert them to signals that the devices can understand, and this enables the equipment to complete specific tasks. From this standpoint, we must start considering it from modes of human thought because the main industrial equipment is commissioned by humans to accomplish various operational directives.

Human brains have the capacity to think of many complex things at the same time; however, for repetitive and monotonous data processing, computers or the processors in embedded systems can do monotonous data transformation or output tasks for us.

In addition, because humans are restricted by various objective physical conditions, they cannot carry out too many operations within the same time period, and these are also the innate limitations of their input/output (I/O) abilities. On the other hand embedded processors always wait calmly for humans to input instructions while the emphasis on efficiency becomes meaningless.

However, talking about this from a different perspective, if this industrial control equipment must be used to measure samples of specific physical phenomena and digital analog conversion, and the calculations' results are provided to the next stage of the equipment to be used for processing, at this point the effectiveness of the algorithms may affect their adoption and influence the fineness of the measurements as well as the follow-up product results.

This kind of phenomena is often encountered in high-tech industries; however, this is only between machines or when machines have to return responses with massive amounts of data to operators. For use in simple interface operations, very high efficiency is still not necessary.

Embedded Designs in Accordance with Specific Conditions

Nevertheless, for operations such as warehouse management or barcode machines, this aspect will involve the size of the machine and the product size. However, generally speaking, powerful processing performance is still not crucial. For example, for warehouse RFID, barcode scanning, linking with central control systems, and calculating inventory and shipping quantities, slower processors are still used for data processing, which can still be completed very quickly. It is the cargo handling processes that will have a real influence on overall efficiency. If machine processing is used entirely for purchasing and shipping without any manual human intervention, unless an instant moving system is invented, as before, there will not be any application bottlenecks in efficiency.

However, if embedded technologies are used in applications in other domains, the specifications and efficiency must be upgraded. Industrial computers are always being upgraded in response the development of mainstream markets. Taking CPUs as an example, from the past until now, the multiple cores of Pentium processors, have made the performance selection of embedded systems products increasingly complete, and key components manufacturers, such as Intel and AMD have also rapidly developed more products in response to the market.

However, since most embedded systems applications must be operated in specialized and harsh environments, and it is impossible to perform regular maintenance or parts replacement, low power designs can assist embedded systems in effectively reducing overheating and dissipation problems in products. In addition, they enable embedded manufacturers to develop fan-less system products for use in harsh environments.

Furthermore, application characteristics for wide temperature ranges also allow for more embedded application products to be used in environments which are cold, hot, and have large temperature differences. As a result, embedded products primarily strive for low power consumption, and the embedded applications with fan-less designs are targeted at different domains, such as industrial computers, cash registers, kiosks and public transport ticket kiosks, medical monitoring, safety applications, automotive and transportation systems, and industrial control and monitoring.

Responding to Different Domains with Different Systems

Suppliers’ entering into the domain of embeddedness and placing importance on embedded technologies shows industrial computer manufacturers that product technologies are moving closer to actual applications. In addition, it also makes a more clear supply guarantee for the initial three to five years of industrial computers or embedded industries and possibly for even longer supply periods.

As for the matter of power consumption, with applications as a starting point, embedded products with fixed power supplies generally have looser requirements for power consumption. However, although they have fixed power supplies, this does not mean that these types of products do not have high power requirements.

Currently environmental awareness is on the rise, and regardless of whether or not they are workplace computers, rooms, or other electrical appliances, the companies have already been gradually required to have good power performance. Of course this is a far cry from protecting the global environment, and the most obvious benefit is being able to save on power expenses through the conservation of electricity.

In terms of power control, Intel could be considered the company that has made the biggest progress in the processor industry, and by using advanced manufacturing processes, putting out only a slight fold in performance has enabled them to reach an equal power consumption table to that of the ARM platform, which is truly amazing.

Intel's past power consumption and efficiency ratios were always the objects of attacks from competitors. However, since the unveiling of their Core microarchitecture, they have made repeated breakthroughs in efficiency and power consumption while also overwhelming their competitors. In the past, Intel's numbers in the embedded market were filled with their older processors, and these processors were long proven in the marketplace with no doubts about their stability. However, this also symbolizes how in the past Intel's main battlefield was never in the embedded market.

New Generation Embedded Concepts

Regardless of their market strategies, every manufacturer strives for integration of hardware and software and completeness of their product lines. In fiercely competitive markets, users are definitely the winner. Markets and specifications development more mature and enables more choices to be available. Looking at the present, competition will continue, and future development will be worth the wait.

For traditional applications, the functions of embedded systems are simpler and easier, and their requirements for compatibility were not high. However, with small sizes, they also had more cost restrictions. Nevertheless, owing to the progress of semiconductor technologies and a trend towards the gradual integration of software and hardware functions, there is less and less demand for embedded systems with single functions. They are instead being replaced by multi-purpose systems which can perform a variety of tasks by merely using different software.

For example, in current general industrial computers the concepts regarding these kinds of embedded systems are already considerably different from traditional concepts, and this is just because they utilize a different type of generic architecture.

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