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New COM Express Platforms Drive Multi-Display Medical-Equipment Advances

The latest lower-power processor architectures enable smaller form factors to do compute-intensive work.

By Nancy Pantone, Kontron America

Improved healthcare is possible due to powerful graphics and display technologies. Such technologies are being supplied by the high-performance, lower-power processor architectures integrated on today’s embedded-computing platforms. As a result, medical professionals can access multiple devices with high-resolution displays as they diagnose, treat, and administer patient care. Using one display with patient information, a doctor or other healthcare professional is able to see and chart current health information or have the ability to access records. At the same time, a second display can be used to view the patient’s current health status, such as blood-pressure or glucose level. This type of system provides the interactive, real-time data access required for effective treatment. Implementing these systems using Intel® processors also enables the development of a common, low-power hardware platform for multiple medical devices. Smaller computer-on-module (COM) form factors are ready to take on the compute-intensive requirements of multi-display systems.

The PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG®) is enabling a new era of advanced, graphics-based, medical-equipment applications. It added a new Type 6 pinout to the COM Express standard, which more effectively utilizes the expanded graphics capabilities of next-generation processors with respect to display support. It adds to and is based on the Type 2 pinout, which has been the most widely adopted of the COM.0 pinout types. Legacy PCI pins from Type 2 have been reallocated in Type 6 to support the digital display interface and for additional PCI Express lanes.

Lower-Power Processors Go Semi-Mobile
Meanwhile, a new generation of lower-power, x86 small-form-factor processors is available with the 32-nm Intel® Core™ i7 processor technology. They’re opening doors to extraordinary improvements in healthcare. Aside from potentially substituting existing stationary electronic-device technology, the newer x86 processors, such as the Intel® Core™ i7 processor, , pave the way for applications in the fields of semi-mobile devices.

The new generation of small-form-factor solutions supports the migration to smaller and lower-power devices. For example, the ETXexpress-AI COM Express module implements a Type 2 or Type 6 pinout. It also incorporates the Intel Core i7-620UE processor with 1.06-GHz performance at 18 W (see Figure 1). Because it capitalizes on the improved energy efficiency of the Intel Core i7 processor, this module is an ideal choice for emerging smaller, portable, and smart battery-powered medical devices, which have docking stations for efficient recharging.

There are several key advantages to lower power in the medical space. The first is the ability to incorporate a low-noise active or (with additional heat-dissipation techniques) fanless heatsink passive-cooling solution. Medical devices must be robust. At the point of care, they also must be quiet. Low-noise fans or fanless solutions are therefore desirable in medical environments.

Additionally, many medical devices have the need for backup power. Even in non-critical patient-care situations, this can be beneficial. Equipment is often semi-mobile rather than stationary, and data can be lost if systems get unplugged and moved without being shut down properly. Lower-power devices with smart battery solutions can make systems more robust if one wants to run on rechargeable battery packs for longer periods of time. Now, medical-device designers can have a graphics-intensive application that’s also lower power. This satisfies their requirements for enhanced patient care through a highly reliable semi-mobile/portable system that features clearer images on multiple displays and with quieter operation.

Medical-Application Needs
Security, data accuracy, and system manageability are of great importance in the medical environment, where patient-record confidentiality and care must be considered at all times. The security and management technology integrated into the Type 6 COM is also an important part of the design equation for medical electronics. Technologies like Intel® vPro™ technology, which offer hardware- and software-enabled management, virtualization, and a security technology platform, are important tools for medical OEMs. Systems that are Intel® vPro™ technology-capable must have dual-core or better central processing units (CPUs), such as the Intel Core i7-620UE processor. They also demand Ethernet-LAN connectivity, Intel® Active Management Technology, Intel® Virtualization Technology, and Intel® Trusted Execution Technology as well as a Trusted Platform Module (TPM). Intel vPro technology is gaining ground in the embedded marketplace with medical-product OEMs and others that need trusted platform architectures.

 

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COMs with the Type 6 pinout leverage Intel vPro technology by integrating up to 8 GBytes of secure ECC DDR3 system memory and an optional TPM module. As a result, designers creating graphics-intensive applications, such as those found in diagnostic and treatment applications, are able to work even more quickly. The application-specific carrier board can be simplified based on the features already built into the new Type 6 COMs.

New Technologies Are Enabled
COMs based on the COM Express standard are design building blocks. They’re known to deliver proven and simple design scalability with the ability to customize for multiple device generations. Originally, PICMG defined five pinouts. Those pinouts have given medical-imaging designers a foundation for signal assignment and design layout for nearly 10 years. The recent introduction of the COM Express Type 6 pinout in the standard’s second revision has great relevance for medical designers. It extends graphics processing and functionality to the point of enabling compelling new medical-imaging devices.

The Type 6 pinout builds in future design options (see Figure 2). The pins previously assigned to the IDE interface in pinout Type 2 are now reserved for future technologies, which are still in development. SuperSpeed Universal Serial Bus (USB) can be implemented to gain faster data transfer for patient-record maintenance. With 16 free pins in Type 6, it offers sufficient lines to implement four of the eight USB 2.0 ports as USB 3.0 ports, which are needed for SuperSpeed USB. The Type 6 pinout definition also offers a configurable Digital Display Interface (DDI) SDVO, DisplayPort, and HDMI/DVI along with 23 PCI Express Gen 2 lanes. As a result, designers have a great deal more functionality including increased native display options and higher serial bandwidth than previously possible. USB 3.0 is implemented in the recently announced ETXepress®-SC COM platform, which will be in production in the second quarter of this year.

 

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An important new capability provided by the Type 6 pinout is the addition of native support for all of the newest display interfaces. This simplifies carrier-board designs, reducing time to market and total cost of ownership for graphics-intensive applications. The extensive PCI Express support provided by Type 6 matches the industry trend of moving away from legacy parallel interfaces. Today’s designers favor the use of pure, serial embedded-systems designs for their higher bandwidth and reduced latency. From a design perspective, using a COM Express Type 6-based module platform minimizes the need for stationary-only workstations. It also gives medical OEMs a smooth transition to next-generation devices, which can feature faster storage subsystems and peripherals as well as increased mobility.

Ready to Go to Work: Lower-Power, Small-Form-Factor COMs
Increasingly, designers of medical-imaging equipment are looking for lower-power, small-form-factor platforms as one of the key enablers for multi-display healthcare systems. Integrating COMs in these designs helps OEMs achieve high-performance, small-form-factor devices and systems. Portable devices are leading the way, and COMs have proven to be an ideal match for this industry’s need. In the fast-moving medical-electronics market, COMs are well-positioned to further support designers as stationary devices evolve to semi-mobile. At the same time, they’ll be able to provide the performance needed to deliver essential imaging capabilities in point-of-care settings beyond the walls of traditional hospital facilities. With the addition of extended graphics features and performance enabled by standard Type 6 COMs, designers have a powerful new tool to use in evolving technology-enabled healthcare.

COMs are a proven form factor for an extended range of portable medical-electronic applications. Implementing these small, modular solutions helps to enable faster time to market while reducing development cost. It also can minimize design risk. COMs provide simplified upgrade paths, future scalability, and increased application longevity, which can help medical-equipment OEMs achieve greater market share.

The medical-equipment industry is moving quickly down a path that’s similar to the one taken by consumer electronics. Stationary systems are now evolving to semi-mobile, smart, battery-operated systems that can be easily moved to the patient location to increase efficiency and reduce cost. COMs have proven themselves by satisfying portability requirements with performance, flexibility of design, and easy customization. Now, designers have access to an even broader range of module-based solutions that further extend the definition of “portable.” With COMs’ inherent low power consumption based on the latest processor architectures, embedded small-form-factor solutions make possible a wide variety of multi-display and portable medical equipment. With such equipment, medical professionals can make precise and quick decisions that improve the level of care.

 


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Nancy Pantone directs product management for Kontron systems and modules divisions, focusing on embedded market trends and strategies. Email: nancy.pantone@us.kontron.com