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32-Bit Microcontrollers Hit New Lows

January 8, 2013

Author: Tom Starnes, Strategy Sanity

Although 2012 has been a modest year for the microcontroller (MCU) market, with overall growth expected to be fairly flat, 32-bit MCUs have expanded to generate 45% of all MCU revenue, up from just 31% in 2007. Smaller 8-bit and 16-bit MCUs still dominate unit shipments at 83% of the market, owing to their low average selling price (ASP).

The growth in 32-bit shipments has come as ARM has taken a stronger foothold in MCUs. Cortex-M processor cores have spread among silicon vendors as the 32-bit architecture, made popular in licensable CPUs, attracts attention in self-contained MCUs. Many new ARM-based products reach down into 8- and 16-bit microcontroller territory, drawing a broader if less pricey application base.

Microcontrollers have continued to play a large role in managing and controlling power consumed by other components and systems while, like other electronic components, reducing their own power consumption. Signs of these activities were evident in 2012 and are expected to continue in 2013 and beyond.

Some of the top MCU vendors have struggled financially over the last few years, not because they build MCUs, but because of greater evolutionary forces in the semiconductor industry. Disaggregation, mergers and acquisitions, and IPOs have added to the difficulties of increasing market share in the recent economic environment. Changes made in 2012 signal a new direction that could be good for the MCU business at those companies.

Smaller MCU companies can be creative, too, with some analog designers reaching across to digital controllers. Silicon Labs continues to expand its MCU products, emphasizing its strength in mixed-signal integration. Peripherals are still blossoming as MCUs add more sensor inputs, touchscreen support, graphics capabilities, network interfaces, security, direct memory access (DMA) controllers, and features from the automotive and application-processor realms. Look for more crossbar pin assignments, fancy timers, and creative power reduction. The coming year may see some traditional MCU leaders, like Freescale and Renesas, return to their former glory, while newer upstarts like Silicon Labs and Energy Micro continue to make their mark as well.

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