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Embedded Microcontrollers Are Cheaper
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As a firmware contractor, I frequently get questions about what embedded firmware is and what is required.

Embedded firmware programming is different from normal PC programming because it is usually designed to do one task or set of tasks. The power of a PC is that it can run many different programs. You may choose to write a letter in Word or read a pdf document in reader. This flexibility comes at a cost though - they're usually pretty large (although netbooks and tablet PCs are getting smaller).

There is a whole segment of electronic devices that don't need this flexibility. In fact mobility and size may be a primary consideration that tips the balance in favor of a microcontroller. Consider a microwave which needs to read the keypad and display the resulting cook time. After the cook time is set and the start button is pressed, it will need to count down the seconds and turn the microwave off after it is complete. Pretty simple, right? Firmware has some definite advantages in this case. The microcontroller is simpler and therefore cheaper than a comparable microprocessor. Also the fact that the program is simpler makes it more reliable. What would you do if your microwave blue screened while making popcorn?

Firmware is normally referred to as "embedded" because it is stored in memory internal to the chip. In fact, that is one of the great benefits of using a microcontroller instead of a microprocessor. A microcontroller will typically have RAM, non-volatile memory, timers, and other GOOD stuff inside one chip. Capabilities such as arithmetic/computation (ADD, SUBTRACT, MULTIPLY, DIVIDE), logic (if this is TRUE, then do this), as well as communications to other devices over RS232, CAN bus, I2C, SPI, or USB that are all inside one microcontroller chip make these chips desirable to use not to mention cheaper.

Cheaper you ask? How can embedded microcontrollers be cheaper? Well, here are a number of ways:

  1. Inventory: Only 1 part (the microcontroller) to buy and inventory instead of 10 separate parts.
  2. Circuit Board Costs: Smaller circuit board area since these parts don't need to be connected together (they're connected inside the microcontroller).
  3. Reliability: Fewer soldered connections means fewer defects during manufacturing.
  4. IP Costs: Memory is inside the chip so the embedded firmware programming is easily secured inside the microcontroller. You won't lose your valuable Intellectual Property.
  5. Power Costs: Fewer components should also cut down on power consumption.

A contract firmware firm such as ours helps a customer select the best microcontroller for the job and then provides the underlying embedded firmware programming required to run the task. A contract firmware company can typically complete a design in less than 6 months and possibly sooner depending upon the complexity of the project. Using contract firmware labor means you pay for the design and maintenance tasks if you choose which means you don't have to hire a full-time embedded firmware programmer.


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