Despite the recession, sales at the world’s largest processor makers have rebounded quickly and are already hitting new heights. The explanation for this lies in the ever-increasing demand for “smart” products across all geographies and markets, which is driving much of today’s economic growth. Consider these recent financial highlights from the microprocessor industry:
• According to the Semiconductor International Capacity Statistics (SICAS) group, total foundry utilization was over 99% in the third quarter, improving from its 98.8% second-quarter figure and 91.1% tally from a year ago.
• Intel reported that the second quarter of 2010 was the “best ever” quarter in the company’s history, as its $10.8 billion in sales led a year-over-year 34% revenue increase.
• Freescale’s third quarter featured record sales growth for the company and a year-over-year processor revenue increase of 42%.
• STMicroelectronics reported strong growth across the company in its third quarter. Sales in its industrial division, which accounts for a lot of processors, were up 43% to over $1 billion for the first time.
• ARM Holdings reported licensed CPU unit shipments of more than 900 million in a single quarter, which was a 65% year-over-year increase and included a tenfold increase in Cortex M3 devices.
This is all part of a longer-term trend. The rate of growth in processor shipments per year is expanding rapidly, having increased tenfold in the last two decades, according to World Semiconductor Trade Statistics. Consider that from 2000 to 2010, the number of processors manufactured each year approximately doubled—from 5 billion to 10 billion. By contrast, the Nasdaq composite index (see the figure) of technology stocks peaked in 2001 at more than double its present value.
As the price of computing power decreases, new applications continually emerge at each price point. Reduced power consumption has a similar effect, particularly in applications requiring batteries. Only about 2% of those 10 billion new processors per year are destined to become the brains of the PCs, laptops, and servers we traditionally think of as computers. The other 9.8 billion are embedded in other kinds of products, from automobiles to satellites to cell phones.
I’ve long considered the possibility of software inside chairs as one potential application. Imagine if the chair you’re sitting in right now automatically knew what adjustments to make to make you more comfortable (i.e., by analyzing your body shape and posture). I haven’t encountered any software-powered chairs yet, but I did recently sit at a software-powered desk.
The ergonomic Sierra Electric desk by Workritefeatures a computer-controlled motor, an LCD, and programmable height buttons, all thanks to a company that dared to profit by embedding a microcontroller and firmware in a desk.
Cost-effective embedded processors are key enablers of our information age, just as cost-effective grain drove the agrarian age and cost-effective steel the industrial age. Consider modern automobiles. Some high-end models reportedly boast more than a hundred embedded processors—in the anti-lock brakes and airbags, of course, but also in each headlight, in each mirror, and so on.
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Increasingly, to charge more for a car that you make or to make a car safer, the formula is “just add software.” Smarter air bags sensitive to passenger size, electronic traction control, and adaptive cruise control are just the first of the possibilities.
None of today’s cars are smart enough for me. Rather than a ban on texting while driving, I’d like to have a car that could drive for me, so I can keep working and communicating. Imagine how smart a computer-driven car could be.
It could simultaneously look ahead and behind and to each side. It could track the speed, acceleration, and trajectory of every car (and obstacle) around you. And, it could keep up with online traffic and weather reports without taking its eyes off the road.
In many cases, it’s only possible to meet our loftiest national and international goals by embedding software inside previously “dumb” products. For example, smart highways can reduce traffic accidents, congestion, and pollution, simply by monitoring and controlling inflow.
Also, what is the Smart Grid but the insertion of embedded software inside the electrical distribution network? “Smart” is happening in health care too, from low-cost sensors that detect the presence of diseases such as cancer and navigable drug delivery devices for more effective treatment to always-connected in-home monitoring equipment.
A Bright Future
The future looks bright for processor manufacturers as well as embedded systems design engineers. The world wants smarter products in every geography and product category. And we need smarter products to help reduce pollution and energy consumption and lower the cost of healthcare. So, get back to work and help end this recession!