Powerful Processors for Embedded Systems

Embedded system developers are depending more than ever on standards and prefabricated modules. There is not much time for development. System-on-modules play an important role here.

With the spread of digitalization and proliferation of IoT applications, system-on-modules (SoMs) also become more important. The cost-effective embedded computing components form the basis of individual board and application developments, especially in the field of human machine interfaces (HMIs), as well as in the fields of automation and robotics, medical technology, POS/POI and IoT. The demand is for further miniaturization and increased performance, but at the same time also for optimized costs and simpler manufacturing. With this in mind, several manufacturers, including Kontron, have developed a new standard for soldered system-on-modules within the framework of the Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies (SGET).  

The goal of the "Open Standard Module" (OSM) is to standardize the current variety of manufacturer-specific modules with regard to sizes, pin assignment, interfaces, cooling and power dissipation. For this purpose, the OSM standard allows for four successive and interrelated module formats for scaling function and I/Os. The dimensions are 15 x 30, 30 x 30, 45 x 30 and 45 x 45 mm. OSM allows for the design and manufacture of system-on-modules for the most common processor architectures such as MCU32, Arm® and x86.

The OSM standard is designed for modules that can be directly soldered without plug connections and, thus, can be completely manufactured by machine. Compared to standardized computer-on-modules (COMs), which often require a certain amount of mechanical and manual effort, SoMs optimize handling as well as assembly and testing. 

Powerful, Compact Modules

A SoM is usually a small but full-fledged industrial computer. It integrates the relevant functional units such as microprocessor, memory (RAM and flash) and power supply, and in some cases, even a greater range of functions, on a compact printed circuit board. The physical connectors that allow the user to connect peripheral devices are placed on a carrier board. Packaging the core functions on the system-on-module enables high performance with compact dimensions as well as low-cost manufacturing.

A SoM is usually soldered or plugged onto the carrier board. System-on-modules from Kontron are soldered on, eliminating the need for connectors on the module and the baseboard below. The corresponding communication interfaces are connected via contact pads on the underside of the module. 

One advantage of system-on-modules is the reduced complexity of the baseboard layer structure. This advantage is especially prevalent in development and unit costs. The benefit from the cost advantage is especially clear when there is a relatively large difference in the sizes of the SoM circuit board and carrier board. A SoM usually has an 8- or 10-layer circuit board in a small size. In turn, it can be placed on a larger, much simpler and therefore cheaper carrier board with a lower number of layers. 

Shorter Development Times

With the help of system-on-modules with powerful new processors in a small amount of space, it is possible to bring new product generations to market more quickly. They simplify the development of complex, customer-specific board architectures and, thus, form the basis for individual board designs..

The in-house development of a complete embedded board with integrated CPU is usually rather complex, requiring long development times. Kontron provides customers fully developed, fully operational system-on-module. Demanding design and layout tasks have already been taken care of, for example pin multiplexing or the complex routing when connecting DDR3 or DDR4 RAM. 

Customers can rely on a proven component that is optimized in every respect. This minimizes development risk and significantly shortens the time to market. Kontron takes over the responsibility for the development and product management. For example, if a memory module is discontinued, Kontron automatically replaces it. The long-term availability of the modules is usually at least ten years. 

Developing Baseboards

Based on a SoM, companies can develop their own baseboard. If required, Kontron can provide support or alternatively take over the complete development. Baseboards from Kontron include, in addition to the SoM, a standard peripheral set with a variety of interfaces, usually USB, Ethernet, CAN, SD card, as well as interfaces for display, touch, audio and programming interfaces. Baseboards can also be used to test applications in a proof-of-concept in order to decide on the design of the board and the appropriate processor. Computing power and storage capacity are scalable as needed.

From Web-panels to IoT Gateways

Thanks to extensive interfaces, Kontron's system-on-modules are suitable for a wide range of applications in industry, automation, medical technology, POS/POI as well as for IoT and Industry 4.0. In combination with displays and, optionally, with housing, high-quality HMI and multi-touch panels can be implemented in different sizes. Another focus is on IoT gateways.

Coffee vending machines with touch screens are one example of the use of SoMs with displays. In this example, Kontron is responsible for the display, the control electronics, the interface to the payment systems and the data logging. In the future, a gateway function will also be integrated, so that coffee vending machine operators can benefit from remote access. This means, for example, that servicing can be carried out when it is actually required and does not need to be done at fixed intervals.

Another field of application is high-quality glass touch control panels that are exposed to special environmental conditions, such as in baking stations in supermarkets or in bakery systems in large bakeries, where there are high temperatures and humidity as well as extreme dust exposure. Both the electronics and the software must be specially tailored to such conditions. Kontron has the necessary expertise to realize individual customer requirements.

The system-on-modules from Kontron are also used in touch displays, such as those used in water treatment systems or demineralizing devices in private households. Connections to company servers and smartphones allow device operators to initiate new digital business models, with low unit costs for the SoM.

The SoM SL i.MX8M Mini

Kontron's SoMs are based on modern, high-performance processor architectures. After Kontron was one of the first manufacturers to launch a SoM with STMicroelectronics' STM32MP157 processor in 2019, the SL i.MX8M Mini, a SoM with NXP's high-performance i.MX8M Mini processor, is now available Kontron offers corresponding baseboards for both modules. Future system-on-modules will be developed based on the new OSM standard.

The SoM SL i.MX8M Mini is based on Arm® Cortex®-A53 and Arm® Cortex®-M4, as well as LPDDR4 memory technology, for real-time applications and control tasks. For computing-intensive applications, the compact module offers the highest performance and sophisticated 3D visualizations, and features extensive communication interfaces as well as a modern DSI interface. Depending on the variant, it is equipped with up to 1.6 GHz. Combined with Kontron's Linux Board Support Package and a fully configured open-source development environment, the SL i.MX8M Mini is ready for immediate use. The system is also available as a starter kit to test the processor. As Kontron's first SoM, it also offers the option of using Microsoft Windows 10 IoT Core as an alternative to a Linux operating system.

Open Standard Module (OSM)

Im Oktober 2019 haben Kontron, iesy und F&S Electronic Systems die Standardisierungsgruppe SDT.05 gegründet, um einen neuen Formfaktor für Auflötmodule zu definieren. Inzwischen sind 13 weitere Unternehmen an der Entwicklung des OSM-Standards beteiligt. Mit dem Release Candidate 1.2 konnten bereits im Februar 2020 Grundlagen für erste Produkt-Designs vorgestellt werden. Im Dezember 2020 wurde der Standard von der Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies (SGET) final verabschiedet.

Advantages of System-on-Modules

  • Easy, low-cost development of embedded applications with custom board designs
  • Applications in industry, automation, medical technology, POS/POI, IoT and Industry 4.0
  • Scalable modular design
  • Minimized design risk and shortened time-to-market
  • Fully operational with Linux or Microsoft Windows 10 IoT Core

Differences between SoM and COM

SoMs basically contain all the elements of a processing system and are soldered or plugged onto a carrier board. A computer-on-module (COM), on the other hand, is more similar to a single board computer (SBC) and is a complete computer. In addition to the main components such as CPU, RAM, Flash and power supply, it also contains interfaces for associated peripherals on a printed circuit board. They have a predefined standard and are usually to be mounted on a carrier board. Unlike SoMs, COMs are already complete computer modules that do not require any additional devices. They offer a high degree of flexibility, as a large number of modules with diverse processors are available on the market. 

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