FPGA Technology and Software IP in Power Electronics Applications

Power electronics innovations 2015 Review – M&A, IoT, GaN

Happy new year 2016 loading concept2015 has been a big year for power electronics innovations, both from a technical and a business point of view. Of course, Elon Musk has been making the news every week regarding Tesla or other new home battery project closing the gap between its solar power generation business and its EV business. Paris treaty on climate change (#cop21) is also probably a good long-term news regarding the increasing necessity to generate power from renewables sources (=> power electronics) and to reduce energy consumption in every sector, including aerospace ( conversion of hydraulic actuators to electro-mecanic actuators => more electric aircraft, solar powered airplanes => Solar impulse, etc.). Otherwise, here are specific topic/news that got my attention in 2015.

1- Chip vendors: Mergers and Acqusitions (M&A)

The big news of the year for FPGA-based embedded system designers is obviously the acquisition of Altera by Intel last June and closed last month. It has been rumored since a quite long time, especially by journalist Kevin Morris, and it will probably significatively change the dynamic in the FPGA technology business, i.e. the 30 years battle with rival Xilinx. Regarding Xilinx, there also have been rumors to be acquired by Avago (May) and later by Qualcomm and IBM (November).  According to this article, “2015 has become a perfect storm for acquisitions, mergers, and consolidation among major suppliers, which are seeing sales slow in their existing market segments and need to broaden their businesses to stay in favor with investors. Rising costs of product development and advanced technologies are also driving the need to become bigger and grow sales at higher rates in the second half of this decade. The emergence of the huge market potential for the Internet of Things (IoT) is causing major IC suppliers to reset their strategies and quickly fill in missing pieces in their product portfolios“.

Among other M&A relevant to power electronics applications are: (1) acquisition of Freescale by NXP (March), (2) acquisition of IRF by Infineon and finally (3) acquisition of Fairchild by ON Semiconductors but the last one is not closed yet.

2- Internet-of-things (IoT)

As indicated above, communication between objects – IoT – is now driving a lot of change in the semiconductor industry, including of course in power electronics applications such as power generation, industrial automation and automotive. It has never been more easy to acquire data and to pipe it out onto a SaaS platform to store it and analyze it (check this 5$ Raspberry PI or this 19$ per unit Photon). Value created by this process is amazing: you now have access to data you didn’t have before and this data allows you to take better business decisions and also to create completely new functionnalities. The challenge is now to analyze this data and build high-value information out of it: condition-monitoring and fault detection of PV panels is certainly a good example. If you want to learn more on the industrial IoT (IIoT), McRock Capital – a canadian VC firm specialized in this sector – has compiled 30 reports available for download on the subject.

Among the available IoT platforms out there, one did catch my attention: Initial State. This Nashville, TN, startup has managed to build a very easy to use web-based platform where you can stream your product data and quickly analyze it. My firm – Alizem – has even released a new IoT product based on this platform that allows you to connect existing electrical equipment to this platform. The same module has also been integrated as an option to Alizem Motor Control Software for Altera MAX10 FPGA devices and it is – to date – the only IoT software/IP solution available on Altera website.

3- Rise of GaN technology

While this blog is on power electronics, we mostly talk about digital control / software innovations related to power electronics applications and it is rare we see true / game-changing innovation on the power electronics device side. 2015 is not like other years with the rise of GaN technology. According to Alex Lidow’s led startup EPC, GaN-based transistors “have characteristics very similar to the power MOSFET, but with improved high speed switching, lower on-resistance, and a smaller size than their silicon predecessors. These new capabilities, married with a step forward in high-density packaging, enable power conversion designers to reduce power losses, reduce system size, improve efficiency, and ultimately, reduce system costs.” Hence, this is no big surprize that some GaN players are actively involved into Google’s Littlebox challenge, including Canada-based GaN Systems who raised 20M$ for its development in May 2015. According to the contest website, we should know about the winner pretty soon (January 2016).

What’s up for 2016? With all those major changes in the air, there is no reason to think that 2016 is going to slow down ! Thanks for reading this review and let me know of anything you think I should add up. Meawhile, we are now all set for a new  year of innovation in the crazy world of power electronics !

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