MADISON, Wis. — Texas Instruments unveiled on Tuesday its new generation of industrial microprocessors, Sitara AM6x. TI calls it “the industry’s first multi-protocol gigabit time-sensitive networking (TSN)-enabled processor family.”

“If you’ve followed TI over the last few years, you’ve noticed that we’ve dramatically shifted our business focus to industrial and automotive markets,” said Adrian Valenzuela, TI’s director of marketing for Sitara processors, in an interview with EE Times. “Our goal is to be the world leader in these applications.”

Indeed, in a recent Q3 earnings conference call, TI’s head of investor relations, David Pahl, said, “We continue to focus our strategy on the industrial and automotive markets, where we have been allocating our capital and driving initiatives to strengthen our position. This is based on a belief that industrial and automotive will be the fastest growing semiconductor markets. They have increasing semiconductor content. And these markets provide diversity and longevity. All of this translates to a high terminal value of our portfolio.”

The upshot of this claim is that TI is rolling the dice on its new Sitara AM6x family, treating the processor as key to TI’s future in the industrial market.

Given that TI already has a large product portfolio of industrial processors, how is AM6x different? Valenzuela said, “Two things: First, Sitara AM6x is the first gigabit-capable processor for time-sensitive networking. Second, we put a huge emphasis on reliability and functional safety.”

TI designed Sitara AM6x processors with Industry 4.0 requirements in mind. (Source: TI)
TI designed Sitara AM6x processors with Industry 4.0 requirements in mind. (Source: TI)

Industry 4.0
The Sitara AM6x processor family is designed to meet evolving Industry 4.0 demands.

Industry 4.0, however, is a loosely defined term that’s both overused and nebulous. Acknowledging that “pretty soon, everything will be described as ‘Industry 4.0,’” Valenzuela stressed two crucial requirements demanded in Industry 4.0 — namely, reliability and low latency.

In the industrial IoT market, classic factory floors are growing more “heavily automated and heavily connected — where wired is preferred more than wireless due to reliability issues,” noted Valenzuela. In such a setting, factory managers are demanding a connectivity network better than existing IEEE standards like TCP/IP Ethernet that lack the necessary reliability or determinism.

Picture a 1,000-pound robotic arm building a 3,000-pound vehicle, said Valenzuela. “You want things to work consistently to the level of a precision with a very low level of latency and guaranteed determinism.”

For this reason, many players in the industrial market have developed proprietary industrial network communication protocols and implemented them on factory floors. Such proprietary industrial protocols include EtherCAT, PROFINET, HSR/PRP, and OPC-UA.

If TI intends to lead the industrial market, it must be prepared to play the long game.

While it touts the Sitara AM6x with IEEE standards-based TSN protocols for the first time, TI adds that the same processor also supports existing legacy industrial communication protocols. Valenzuela told us that the processor comes with “a dedicated hardware accelerator” that can be configured to support multiple industrial protocols without hardware redesign. If a manager wants to build a factory floor using a single network with both Ethernet and real-time data traffic, Valenzuela affirmed that, “yes, they can mix and match” by using Sitara AM6x.

Why gigabit?
Unlike 10/100 Ethernet standards, TSN, an extension of IEEE standards to bring deterministic services, is capable of gigabit rates of communication on the industrial network.

Valenzuela acknowledged that factory managers might prefer sticking to their own industrial network communication protocols rather than jumping to TSN right away. Legacy protocols such as EtherCAT, PROFINET, and HSR/PRP will be around “for decades to come, and there is nothing wrong with them,” he noted. In fact, “many [factory managers] may not change.”

However, once machine vision arrives on the factory floor, managers will find dramatic increases in requirements for bandwidth. “They will need gigabit bandwidth,” said Valenzuela.

Robots or autonomously guided vehicles on the factory floor pushing video streams out to other nodes on the network, not to the cloud, will trigger an urgent need for bandwidth. Picture a robot docking to upload video — right now — for deep learning or analysis. “You need the speed.”

Asked about TSN standards versus proprietary protocols, Valenzuela said that in addition to the higher speed that TSN could offer, “the standards-based protocols are future-proof. It is the IEEE standard. It is not likely to change, and it will be supported by many people.”

He added, “On the other hand, with conventional proprietary protocols, you need to license your technology out — which could involve licensing fees — to insure interoperability among different systems” attached to the industrial network on factory floors.

What’s inside AM6x
The Sitara AMx6 family comes with quad and dual Arm Cortex-A53 core options. Asked about scalability, Valenzuela stressed that AM6x, along with TI’s older AM3, 4, or 5, uses the same software across all devices. “And we update software on a quarterly basis to be the same.”

The goal is to offer customers more functions without forcing wholesale changes in software, he explained.

AM6x is undergoing certification at TÜV SÜD for IEC 61508 targeting SIL-3. “Our customers can go up to SIL-3–level functional safety,” noted Valenzuela. “But of course, applications that run on this processor also need to be certified for functional safety.”

Another important element of Sitara AM6x is an “on-chip, isolated dual Arm Cortex-R5F MCU subsystem protected by hardware diagnostic measures.” While some of TI’s previous processors support “virtualization,” Valenzuela noted, “This is our first device to have dedicated IP that enables our customers to have their applications certified as functional safety.”

Sitara AM6x offers an isolated MCU subsystem, protected by hardware diagnostic measures. (Source: TI)
Sitara AM6x offers an isolated MCU subsystem, protected by hardware diagnostic measures. (Source: TI)

The Sitara AM6x includes extensive error correcting code (ECC) memory protection. When bit flips occur, ECC will know and correct errors in memory. TI noted that ECC and protection mechanisms are available on all on-chip memories and external memory interfaces.

Valenzuela also touted enhanced on-chip security. The AM6x offers “secure boot, secure storage (encrypted memory protected by firewall), and security accelerators (hardware accelerators to speed up data processing to perform security functions).”

The AM6x is “industrial-grade,” according to TI, offering operating junction temperature from &minus40°C to 105°C.

Sampling pre-production models
Samples of pre-production models of the Sitara AM6x family are available, but full production will not begin until the second half of 2019. Valenzuela explained, “It usually takes 12 months for developers to design industrial applications.”

Developers can get started now with Sitara processor-based development kits available through the TI store. The AM65x industrial development kit (IDK) and AM65x evaluation module (EVM) are available for $819 and $898, respectively, according to TI.

— Junko Yoshida, Global Co-Editor-In-Chief, AspenCore Media, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times