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More Small Form Factors Are Delivered off the Shelf

By Ellen Konieczny

The standardization of technologies has led to the increased commoditization of small form factors. Adding to this trend is the widespread adoption of embedded PC technology as the processing engine of choice. These changes have pushed more companies toward “one-size-fits-many” solutions. At the same time, there has been a corresponding increase in rugged applications. When coupled with the cost-cutting measures of a bad economy, these trends have driven small-form-factor board or system manufacturers to provide more off-the-shelf products and leave the differentiation to their customers.

Probably the most common ruggedized element of newer small form factors is their extended temperature range. Some applications simply offer an increased thermal range from -20ş to +70şC, which goes beyond what typical commercial products would be able to support. ADLINK Technology’s CTO, Jeff Munch, notes that this “middle ground” is becoming more popular and not as difficult or expensive as extreme rugged.

More extreme temperature ranges may be on the horizon, however. According to Jonathan Luse, director of marketing for the Low Power Embedded Products Division, Intel® Embedded and Communications Group, “Even before we had an extendedtemperature version of our first Intel® Atom™ processor, we had seen extended-temperature boards available for sale. What people were doing was finding creative ways to extend the temperature at the system level. We just launched the Menlo XL package a few months ago and extended the range of the silicon from -40º to +85ºC. As past history has shown, the integrators— the people who take that silicon—might actually be able to extend the range of their own extended-temperature product at the system level by doing the same creative things that they did with the normal-temperature-range product last year.”

The higher temperature range of -40º to +85ºC is usually the target of military-grade products. As off-the-shelf small form factors are increasingly being used in military systems, defense customers are innovating ways to house and protect them. According to Nigel Forrester, marketing manager with Emerson Network Power’s Embedded Computing business, “If you look at a small motherboard, it’s quite rigid. But in a battlefield scenario where the board sustains some very high shock loading, things do start to bend.” A variety of approaches exist to screw down or restrain different parts. Whether they are screwed in, bolted down, or locked, the key is that the products are restrained in some manner so that they cannot pop out in a highly rugged environment (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The MicroTCA and AdvancedMC products have been packaged into a specially designed Air Transport Rack (ATR) from Hybricon and demonstrated in various extreme environments, such as filming itself on the back of a military “gama goat” vehicle bouncing around the Arizona desert.

The rise in rugged small form factors also is being seen in the industrial, alternative energy, and even commercial markets. Many are crediting processing developments for this growth. Lower-power processors like the Intel Atom processor don’t generate a great deal of heat. As a result, there’s no need to dissipate that heat somewhere else. It’s also easier to use such processors at extended temperatures. “Because Intel Atom processors are is smaller and lower in power consumption than most of the other Intel® silicon solutions,” Forrester adds, “there’s a trend to put these processors on smaller and smaller boards.”

For example, American Portwell Technology Inc. recently debuted the 120-x-120-mm NANO-8045 and NANO-8050 boards, which measure 50 percent of the standard Mini-ITX form factor. The NANO-8045, which targets low-power systems and handheld mobile devices, was designed to consume less than 10 W at full loading. It can therefore be a fanless and battery-operated configuration that supports multiple storage devices. With its onboard DC input adapter, the NANO-8045 vows to reduce the size of the overall system without the need for an internal DC adapter board.

Smaller-form-factor, low-power devices like handhelds also inspired a collaboration between ADLINK Technology, Kontron, Advantech, and AAEON, which led to the release of the nanoETXexpress 1.0 specification. This 84-x-55-mm computer-on-module (COM) form factor, which was originally initiated by Kontron, now includes SDVO support (see Figure 2). Regarding this announcement, ADLINK’s Jeff Munch points out, “One byproduct of the nano trend is the removal of one of the connectors that’s typically used in these COMs. When you’re looking at high-end processors, whether you have one or two interconnects on your board doesn’t really matter. But as you start looking at these really low-cost Intel Atom processor- based products, all of a sudden the price of that connector becomes important. It’s another way of helping to reduce the cost because you have less material because of the smaller form factor and you’ve removed one of the interconnects.”

Figure 2: The NanoX-ML was spawned out of efforts to support the small COM form factor dubbed nanoETXexpress.

Jeff Acampora, VP of sales and marketing at Arium, notes that smaller-form-factor evolution also will be driven by system-on-a-chip (SoC) integration. This past January, Intel announced the successful integration of video technology Jeff Acampora, VP of sales and marketing at Arium, notes that smaller-form-factor evolution also will be driven by system-on-a-chip (SoC) integration. This past January, Intel announced the successful integration of video technology onto an x86 chip dubbed the Intel® Media Processor CE 3100. Although this SoC has not yet enabled very small form factors, such high levels of integration are bound to drive that evolution. According to Acampora, “Arium has been involved with companies that are using the CE 3100 for high-speed video-processing applications or audio-visual processing applications, which are highly integrated and really taking a quantum leap in that particular area. They’re using our ECM-XDP3 Intel JTAG debugger to develop the software (usually Linux) running on those embedded systems.”

From rugged military to portable applications, customers are increasingly leveraging offthe- shelf solutions to speed their development process while lowering costs. For the longer-lifetime military applications, using standard off-the-shelf products also translates into having the ability to swap out a standard processor module or other part in another four or five years that is exactly the same—same size format and pinout. Forrester notes, “If it’s Intel compatible, your software should work on it in exactly the same way. This gives people a nice warm feeling because when a device goes obsolete, they can more easily execute a swap-out at the module level.”

With the availability of standardized small form factors and the average person’s comfort with a PC, there also is a trend toward small form factors being implemented by non-engineers. According to Bob Burckle, vice president of WinSystems, “Instead of having to hire the engineer with degrees to do both hardware and software design, a biologist, chemist, physicist, or fill-in-the-blank can take an off-theshelf, small-form-factor single-board computer knowing that, ‘hey, it’s just a PC’ and make it integrate and work well with their particular application.”

With the world’s current economic woes, the use of standard off-the-shelf products will only grow. And with staffs in many industries limited, there’s no doubt that laypeople may take on work that previously fell to the engineer. Going forward, small-form-factor companies will focus on what they do best by providing standard products. At the same time, their customers will do what they do best by adding differentiating touches to their final products.

Ellen Konieczny is a freelance writer who has extensive experience creating manuals and other technical documents for companies. She can be reached at ellen.konieczny@gmail.com.