Market trends upward for merchant DSP boards

Digital-signal processing (DSP) can be accomplished by any relatively powerful computing system, provided the proper algorithms are used.

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J. Eric Gulliksen

Digital-signal processing (DSP) can be accomplished by any relatively powerful computing system, provided the proper algorithms are used. However, DSP can be made substantially more efficient through use of silicon that is optimized for the purpose. Most merchant DSP boards for military and industrial applications utilize fixed or floating-point digital-signal processors, field- programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), RISC processors (particularly Motorola's AltiVec series), ASICs, or combinations of FPGAs and one of the other processor types.

In a recent market study, Digital Signal Processing (DSP): Global Market Demand Analysis, Venture Development Corporation (VDC; Natick, MA) determined that the overall market for merchant DSP boards was almost $560 million in 2003. This is expected to grow to nearly $760 million in 2008, yielding a 6.3% CAGR.

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VDC divided this market into three primary platform classes: slot cards, including VME, CompactPCI, PCI, and ISA; mezzanine/daughter cards and plug-in modules; and other platforms such PC/104-family modules and stand-alone boards. Slot cards constituted almost 83% of the 2003 market. Well over half of unit-volume shipments were of PCI boards, followed by CompactPCI and VME. Plug-in modules and other mezzanine/daughter cards represented approximately an additional 15% of the 2003 market. Unit volume shares of these two categories were roughly equal, but plug-in modules comprised nearly 80% of the dollar value of this segment. These modules are generally of proprietary architecture and are used in combination with slot cards to provide flexible and configurable multiprocessing capability.

Of the vertical market segments examined, three make extensive use of vision technology: military/aerospace, including radar, sonar, target acquisition, fire control, satellite-based surveillance; industrial automation and control, including machine vision and semiconductor and wafer inspection; and medical/scientific/educational, particularly medical tomography and research (see figure). Although the access/security market for DSP boards is still quite small, VDC expects it to grow substantially, as facial-recognition technology is refined and matures and screening of freight, as well as baggage, becomes more prevalent.

The industrial-automation-and-control market segment consumes merchant DSP boards spanning the entire spectrum of available products, from high-end RISC-based systems used for semiconductor and wafer inspection to low-end fixed-point DSP-based stand-alone boards used for simple forms of motion control. The stand-alone boards sell in relatively high volumes, but at low prices.

In general, high-end vision-oriented DSP applications require a great deal of computing power and have a wide dynamic range. Therefore, RISC processors are an ideal choice. These may be used singly or in multiples and can be augmented by FPGAs, as well. In 2003, more than half of the dollar-volume shipments to this market used traditional digital-signal processors as primary silicon. RISC-based boards, intended for high-end applications, represented just over one-third of dollar-volume shipments.

In the medical/scientific/educational markets, medical tomography comprises the primary application for vision DSP products. Again, RISC-based systems are ideal for the purpose, and nearly half of dollar-volume board shipments to this segment used these as primary processing silicon in 2003. Nearly 70% of dollar-volume board shipments comprised slot cards, and plug-in modules represented almost all of the remainder.

There are clear indications of increasing use of FPGAs in all areas of DSP. This holds true for cases where FPGAs are used alone and in cases where these are used in combination with other types of primary processing silicon.

In addition, there is a clear requirement for increasingly higher resolution in vision-oriented applications, which, in turn, demands higher processing power. This trend is most apparent in semiconductor and wafer inspection, where smaller feature sizes demand higher resolution. Similar requirements exist for applications such as satellite reconnaissance.

The processing power of server-oriented CPUs may be sufficient for certain image-processing applications. Because such systems are less expensive than their RISC-based counterparts, we have seen evidence of some migration toward the use of dual Intel Xeon processor servers in this space, where one CPU is used for control purposes and the other for processing.

J. Eric Gulliksen is director, Venture Development Corporation, Natick, MA, USA;

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