May 10, 2004
Microchip Technology, the Chandlerbased semiconductor company that is already the world’s largest producer of 8-bit microcontrollers, is moving up the food chain.
The company is introducing a line of 16-bit digital signal controllers that are capable of performing more complex tasks and moving the company into the arena of higher-performance chips.
To introduce engineers to the device, the company has launched a worldwide contest with $30,000 worth of prizes including a motorcycle, plasma television, home entertainment center or cash to the engineers who design the best application around the new controller.
Entries will be judged by Microchip engineers on about 20 criteria, including how fully they make use of the increased performance capabilities of the new controllers.
"This contest is a great avenue for engineers to evaluate the advantages of applying higher computation capabilities in their next designs," said Steve Marsh, director of marketing for Microchip Technology’s Digital Signal Controller Division.
In addition to having more memory than 8-bit microcontrollers, the new chips also have digital signal processing capabilities, which provides faster performance.
Sixteen-bit controllers (the term "bit" refers to units of information) are "embedded" inside such products as automobiles, home security systems, medical and industrial equipment, motor controls, telephones and other communications gear, said Sumit Mitra, vice president of the Digital Signal Controller Division.
Such chips play a vital role in controlling the functioning of the products, but they are not seen directly by the user.
With digital signal capability, the new chips will be able to perform more work in the same amount of time, Mitra said. One possible use of the chips, for example, will be in "smart" air bags that provide vehicle occupants with more effective protection in an accident, he said.
"Five years ago about all that air bags could do was protect the driver’s side when they detected a frontal crash," Mitra said. "Now there are driver side, passenger side, side impact sensors, rollover sensors, and they can control how fast they open depending on the size of the person. They can do 10 or 15 things, all in a few milliseconds."
Entering the 16-bit market is a natural progression for Microchip Technology, even though the company faces tough competition, Mitra said. Many of Microchip’s established 8-bit customers want to move to 16-bit controllers to add more capabilities to their products, he said.
He added that the company believes it can repeat the success it had with 8-bit microprocessors.
"When we entered the 8-bit market in the 1990 time frame, there were about 20 players in the market, and they were all large," he said. "But we gained market share and became No. 1 within 10 years. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment."