Two trends that are generating high growth for ARM based COM products

The highlight of any industry analyst’s calendar is visiting the major tradeshows of their respective technology areas. Embedded World 2012 did not disappoint.


The highlight of any industry analyst’s calendar is visiting the major tradeshows of their respective technology areas. Embedded World 2012 did not disappoint. The show was filled with a high number of interesting announcements by the industry’s leading players. The talk of the show was the use of ARM technology. Although ARM based COM products can hardly be considered new (see figure 1), two key trends have made the potential market far more interesting for new entrants.

First, the ARM silicon offerings have become much more capable, driven by the consumer electronics world. Mobile phones and tablets have more and more functionality than before – whether it’s graphics, processing or I/O. Even silicon vendors that haven’t been so successful in the consumer electronics area still have very capable products, so the whole embedded market has benefited from increasing ARM functionality in the consumer world. These more capable products have extended the application reach of ARM processors, particularly in sectors like industrial automation, medical and retail.

Figure 1: ARM based modules are a new feature of the COM market, but in 2011 x86 based modules still made up the majority. Source: IMS Research

The increase in chip capability also has another direct effect. In the past, integrating an ARM solution was far more straightforward – there was no complicated power sequencing, high speed buses or high speed memory. ARM 3 chips were simple for OEMs to integrate, but ARM 9 chips are not. With increasing frequency, OEMs have had to look to outside firms to take advantage of the latest advances in the technology. COM vendors reacted appropriately by offering ARM products – and this has the potential to seed the market for future growth.

Second, margins on board level products have decreased. The average price of x86 processors has increased year-on-year and intense competition in the industry has prevented board suppliers from passing these increases on to customers. By comparison ARM chips can be 2-3 times less expensive than a comparable x86 system-on-a-chip.

Combined, these two trends have created a powerful incentive for traditional x86 module vendors to create new ARM based offerings.

COM ARM adoption will be especially strong in any application that are thermally constrained, or need a battery. ARM vendors have reported a number of big design wins in the home health care market. Devices used for this application often require passive cooling (to prevent irritating noise for patients) or may need a battery (devices could be worn by patients for many hours).

IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is aware of a number of design wins for ARM based modules; and the future for this type of product looks extremely bright. Historically, the COM market has grown 20-25% year-on-year and growth in ARM modules will track above this. IMS Research projects that approximately 40% of the COM market will be ARM based by 2016.

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