Modern Embedded Design: Sustainability Throughout the Lifecycle

By Zeljko Loncaric

Marketing Engineer

congatec Inc.

November 13, 2023


Modern Embedded Design:  Sustainability Throughout the Lifecycle

The environment, the protection of nature, a shift in demographics, skilled labor shortages, challenges to security – our society is facing fundamental change. Key technologies like digitization and artificial intelligence can smooth the path for change by enabling smart edge devices that promote a green, sustainable, and livable future.

Embedded systems are at the core of all these applications, and their use is rapidly increasing – as is the speed of innovation. Given this, it is all the more important to design, develop, and produce these systems in a more sustainable manner.

Embedded systems and edge servers collect, analyze, and transmit data as an integral part of the telecommunications and 5G infrastructure. Used across all industries and application areas, they act as a driver for future technologies and greater sustainability. Providing ever higher performance in an ever more compact design, they enable autonomous mobile robotics, more advanced medical diagnostics and therapies, as well as innovative solutions for the automation industry. All these applications serve to optimize industrial processes and controls and save resources. As this improves both the profitability and efficiency of applications, embedded systems can help solve our societal challenges.

Shorter development cycles and replacements mean more e-waste

Rapid technical advances, increasingly powerful processors, and specialized processing units like GPGPUs (General Purpose Graphics Processing Units) and NPUs (Neural Processing Units) on the one hand, and ever higher data processing requirements for IIoT-enabled, networked devices, and AI-driven applications on the other, are leading to shorter and shorter development cycles. To stay competitive in the face of such rapid innovation, secure their position as trend setters, and develop new business models, companies must regularly invest in new systems. Experts have already been witnessing this trend in recent years and expect it to continue. For example, as per a recent global server market study, data research institute International Data Corporation (IDC) expects the market to grow by almost 12 percent in the coming year compared to this year (source: IDC Quarterly Server Tracker, 2023Q1).

The alternative: Modular Computer-on-Modules and Server-on-Modules

Any data center modernization that involves the replacement of entire rack systems creates massive amounts of e-waste – the exact opposite of sustainable and efficient use of resources. The good news is that there is another way. Modular designs based on Computer-on-Modules and Server-on-Modules offer a cost-effective and attractive alternative that avoids the need for complete rack replacement. Such platforms make it possible to upgrade existing hardware with the latest processor technology, while retaining all other components such as the carrier board, power supply, and housing. This reduces the number of components that must be replaced and disposed of or recycled at great expense. It also saves end customers money: Server manufacturer Christmann cites 50% cost savings for upgrades using standardized Server-on-Modules versus full server replacement.

More computing power – less energy consumption

The same arguments that apply to servers are true for other application areas: Robots, medical devices, and industrial applications also gain from higher performance and innovative technologies when outfitted with the most advanced modules, such as those needed for processing complex AI algorithms. Modular systems offer a distinct advantage for upgrading to new technologies and performance levels: Replacing just the Computer-on-Module is far more efficient than replacing entire devices.

In view of rising energy costs and the proliferation of mobile systems, the fact that new processors and modules are generally more energy-efficient is another compelling argument for upgrades. More efficient use of resources and energy is particularly important for fixed 24/7 installations. And shorter charging times and cycles increase the availability of mobile applications like autonomous robots and driverless vehicles.

Advantages for new business models

Upgrading with the latest modules also holds great promises for pay-per-use and as-a-service providers. They can offer cutting-edge hardware platforms with maximum performance for lower upfront investment. This secures a competitive advantage for providers as well as their customers. It also reduces total cost of ownership for the hardware and maximizes return on investment. This makes the subscription economy model lucrative for both providers and customers. Utilized optimally, server installations featuring the latest hardware will ultimately also promote sustainability and efficient resource use.

Longer lifecycles for industry

Modular designs are particularly crucial in industrial applications: Longevity often plays a key role here – especially if the embedded system was customized or adapted specifically for the application. In a worst case scenario, a discontinued processor can require an entirely new development or a costly redesign. However, modular designs using application-specific carrier boards and standardized Computer-on-Modules allow even decades-old applications and designs to be upgraded with new processors. Proven legacy applications can be kept up to date through continuous processor upgrades to provide advanced features and computing performance. As software defines much of the functionality today, module upgrades extend the lifecycle of entire applications. The result is greater environmental sustainability.

COM-HPC: Standard for modular electronics design

Theory shows that modular electronics provide enormous potential for increased performance, cost savings, sustainability, interchangeability, and upgradeability. COM-HPC Computer-on-Modules from congatec are developed for high-bandwidth, high-performance client and edge server applications. For this purpose, the COM-HPC modules support a wide range of processors besides GPGPUs, AI accelerators, ASICs and FPGAs for flexibility, scalability, and upgradability for current and future designs.

The goal is to continue along this path to find other ways to improve sustainability even further – e.g., by using more eco-friendly materials and additive technologies in PCB manufacturing, shortening supply chains, improving electronics recycling, and reducing e‑waste overall.