8-bit MCU: Still alive and kicking

Article By : Jacob Beningo

While many of us who work at the cutting-edge wonder why the 8-bit microcontroller won’t die, the truth is that 8-bit microcontrollers probably dominate our industry.

The microcontroller industry is an interesting beast. Last year, in 2021, over 29 billion microcontrollers were sold with revenues of 18.5 billion USD. Quick math tells you that the average microcontroller sale price was ~$0.64. That seems inexpensive given that nearly every webinar, article, and company is touting the latest 32-bit microcontroller with multiple cores, security, and the ability to run machine learning inferences. So what exactly is going on here?

Figure 1: Microcontroller market history and forecast. (Image Source: IC Insights)

Scouring the internet for analyst data on the microcontroller industry led me to several exciting charts that may help illuminate the situation. First, Figure 2 shows a historical and projection diagram of the North American microcontroller market size by processor bus width. Notice that while the industry is growing at ~10% CAGR, the industry is not necessarily dominated by the latest and greatest 32-bit microcontrollers! In addition, growth in the sector appears to be dominated by the 8-bit and 16-bit space as well!

Figure 2: The microcontroller industry is growing rapidly, and 8-bit microcontrollers are keeping pace. (Image Source: https://www.millioninsights.com/industry-reports/microcontroller-market)

One would think that there couldn’t possibly be that many 8-bit microcontrollers still on the market; however, a quick look on Mouser’s website for microcontrollers reveals something exciting. First, there are currently around 50,000 different microcontrollers available worldwide. (This number varies slightly depending on the supplier search but is valid for microcontrollers available for new designs). Second, the breakdown for the number of parts available in each architecture is unexpected! There are more 8-bit microcontrollers (13,928) available than Arm 32-bit microcontrollers (12,335)! One might suspect a larger market for 8-bit MCUs than 32-bit! (I’m cheating here a bit. If we add Arm and other proprietary 32-bit cores, the total is ~21,000).

Figure 3: A screenshot from Mouser showing the total number of microcontrollers available and their architectural breakdown. (Image Source: Beningo Embedded Group)

Why won’t 8-bit microcontrollers die? More than a decade ago, Jack Ganssle published a rant, 8-bits is dead, where he concluded, “as high-end processors drop in price, those at the bottom get cheaper too, which opens up new markets that could never have afforded semiconductor intelligence.” While many teams focus on the cutting edge of the industry, there are just as many, if not more, opportunities where simple and cheap microcontrollers fit the need!

While many of us who work at the cutting-edge wonder why the 8-bit microcontroller won’t die, the truth is that 8-bit microcontrollers probably dominate our industry. We’re just too busy chasing the latest and greatest flashy, shiny microcontroller or buying into the marketing hype to recognize the capabilities of these industry workhorses.

This article was originally published on Embedded.

Jacob Beningo is an embedded software consultant who specializes in real-time, microcontroller-based systems. He actively promotes software best practices through numerous articles, blogs, and webinars on topics from software architecture design, embedded DevOps, and implementation techniques. Jacob has 20 years of experience in the field and holds three degrees including a Masters of Engineering from the University of Michigan.


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