Chip Family Demise Could Impact Factory Systems

Industrial end-users should ask questions of their controls and equipment vendors, says consultant, in the wake of Intel’s decision to discontinue popular x86 chips.

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It's the end of the line for a popular family of microcontroller chips used in many industrial control applications, and it could soon make a difference on your company's factory floor.

Intel Corp., the Santa Clara, Calif.-based microprocessor giant, announced in May that it plans to stop production on some 700 processor part numbers, some of which it has been manufacturing for more than 25 years. The list encompasses the venerable x86 family of chips, including the 80186, '286, '386 and '486 processors, which are still used frequently in industrial product designs. Intel will stop taking orders on these chips after March 2007, with the last shipment date scheduled for Sept. 28 next year.

In announcing the move, Intel said that forecasted volumes for these product lines are too low to continue production beyond 2007. But as noted by Jim Turley, a Pacific Grove, Calif., microprocessor consultant who specializes in embedded applications, x86 chips are still used widely in applications ranging from retail kiosks and cash registers to a plethora of factory control products.

"There are literally thousands of applications out there that still run on '386s, and even older '286s or newer '486s," Turley says. "For things like robotics, industrial control, machine vision, process control, assembly lines and almost anything you could name, '386 and '486 type processors are pretty popular," adds Turley, who is owner and principal analyst for Silicon Insider, a newsletter covering microprocessors and semiconductor technology.

Scramble time

The Intel product cancellation is certain to touch off a scramble, as many industrial embedded systems designers search for ways to replace their favorite chips.

Indeed, the pain in the market is palpable, says Keith Prettyjohns, chief executive officer at Innovasic Semiconductor Inc., an Albuquerque, N.M., vendor that specializes in developing compatible replacement chips for obsolete chips used in industrial products. "Since the Intel announcement, we've seen a dramatic surge of incoming calls and e-mails, both from the customers we know, and from smaller customers all over the world, some of whom we've never had contact with before," Prettyjohns notes. "We're getting lots of inquiries."

Many industrial products designed five or 10 years ago using x86 chips may still have five to 10 years or even longer left in their product lifecycles, Prettyjohns points out. And without the original chips or compatible replacement parts, vendors must either kill the product or face an expensive redesign using a different microcontroller chip, he says.

According to Turley, low-end alternatives for some chips on Intel's end-of-life list, such as the 8051 and MCS90, will not be hard to find. But other, more complex integrated circuits including the '386 and '486 will be very difficult to replace, he says. Turley notes that Intel arch-rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), Sunnyvale, Calif., has already discontinued most of its older x86 processor chips.

Product changes?

What impact will the changes have on the end-users of affected factory systems and equipment? If an industrial systems vendor does a good job in finding replacement chips, or in redesigning its products around a different microcontroller, the end-user shouldn't notice a difference, Turley observes.

But one exception might involve existing automation product lines that rely on Microsoft Windows or older DOS-based user interfaces, he adds. "If my supplier can't get new x86 processors that are going to run DOS or Windows, then he's going to have to start over with a whole new user interface, and that's going to be very noticeable to the customer."

Some automation vendors may choose to make bulk purchases of Intel x86 chips prior to the end-of-life deadline, Turley notes. This would mean a big inventory and accompanying large cash outlay for the vendors. "But for a lot of companies, that's going to be the only way that they're able to fill these [controller] boards and satisfy their customers for the years ahead," says Turley. In other cases, the Intel announcement may be the catalyst that causes automation vendors to discontinue existing product lines entirely, and develop new product families based on more modern microcontroller families.

Ask questions

Turley recommends that factory end-users begin asking questions of their automation vendors now about products that may be affected, and how vendors plan to handle the change:

  • Will I be able to get this product from you in the future?
  • Are you going to do a bulk purchase so that you can supply me this product for the next several years, or will you be switching processor vendors?
  • Is the product I get from you going to change, and what do I have to do about it?
  • Will the new product be a drop-in replacement for the old product?
  • Will I have to retrain my staff?
  • Will the new product be more or less expensive than the current product?
  • Will this change have any repercussions as far as energy consumption, power or heat dissipation?

"It's time to have a long talk, a little heart-to-heart, with your vendors," Turley advises. "And I would ask for some pretty clear answers."

Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Innovasic Semiconductor Inc.

Intel Corp.

Jim Turley's Silicon Insider

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