FPGA Technology and Software IP in Power Electronics Applications

Motor Control IC vs Motor Control IP

System level design is in the air. This is also true for motor control applications.

Up to now, this blog has mainly focused on commenting third-party articles relating to FPGA as a chip for embedded system development in power electronics applications, mostly for motor control. Unfortunately, most of those third-party articles have been written with an “old” chip thinking comparing FPGA solely as another alternative to COTS DSP and MCUs. From a certain point of view this is completely understandable: those articles have been written by motor control people who have been using DSP since the last 15 years. Since the 90s, digital motor control embedded system design has been roughly the following: buy a DSP chip + plug it with other components on a PCB + program the DSP + plug your motor and check how is the motor running. Why it shouldn’t be the same with FPGAs in 2010 ?

The reason is because FPGAs are not a chip anymore: they are a platform. I am not inventing this, this is a reality. Xilinx’s CEO Moshe Gavrielov speaks about it, Altera’s CEO John Daane speaks about it specifically for Motor Control applications and so does Actel’s CEO John East.

What does this new kind of approach mean for motor control system applications ? The major shift here for motor control system design is not the semiconductor technology (FPGA) itself but the new level of component integration. I like to compare this shift to the one that happened in personnal computing: why smartphone are currently replacing PC ?

Old

New

System Platform

PC

iPhone

Components

Software

Apps

Component integration

Tideous

Easy

Flexibility

Low

High

Component cost (per unit, roughly)

25$-200$

1$-10$

Take a photo and share it over internet in 10 seconds from almost everywhere on the planet

Impossible.

Built-in.

On a component-to-component basis, it is true that my iPhone screen is not as convenient as my desktop screen, the email management software is not comparable to most desktop email management and the internet connection may not be as fast as a real cable internet connection. So if it is less perfomant, why does this happen ? This is not a question of performance, it’s a question of form factor. And this form factor enables you to do new things (with very high added-value) that were not possible on the former platform: like taking a photo and share it over internet from almost everywhere on the planet within 10 seconds. This is how Apple promotes its iPhone platform everywhere through the infinite uses of iPhone apps.

Is this situation comparable to FPGA-as-a-platform and its ecosystem of IP Cores (“apps”) ? In my opinion, it is:

Old

New

System Platform

PCB

FPGA

Components

IC (inluding FPGA)

IP

Component integration

Complex

Automatic

Flexibility

Low

High

Component cost

-

Lower

Design a complete system from scratch in one day

Impossible.

Yes.

In this new motor control embedded system design scheme, what was formerly a (PCB-integrated) motor control IC is now being replaced by a (FPGA-integrated) motor control IP (this is also true for other system-level IC such as image processing IC – see the excellent article of Kevin Morris – Paint-by-number ASSP ). Hence the question : what new things that a motor control IP can provide in motor control system applications over motor control IC ? Many of them are already mentionned in this Alizem Motor Control IP for Home Appliance applications white paper such as using reconfigurability of hardware to develop custom energy-optimal PWM. Here are some others :

Old

New

Motor Control component form factor

IC

IP

Quality

May vary

Constant

Supply

Limited

Unlimited

Lead time

Weeks-months

None

Component obsolesence

May happen.

No.

Motor Control application-specific

No – Generic

Yes – Specific

Integration with main controller

Tedious

Automatic

Component pin layout

Fixed

Customizable

Providing a motor control HW/SW upgrade service remotely to your customer at very low cost

Impossible. (HW upgrade involve chip replacement).

Its in the name (Field-Programmable)

There’s is no doubt: there’s a worldwide growth to be expected in the coming years for power electronics applications: solar power, electric vehicule, smart-grid enabled industrial motor drive, etc.. But all this is going to happen in a business environment where great pressure is put on higher performance and reliability and lower costs and time-to-market. In those conditions, the FPGA plaform + Motor Control IP approach is certainly an option to consider to resolve those diverging constraints.

Pursuing with the “iPhone” analogy and considering IP as “apps” running on a FPGA platform, it is tempting to ask : will Altera, Xilinx and Actel – with their own IP ecology (“iStore”) – become the next ‘Apple’ of semiconductor space ? I look forward to hear the keynote “Future of FPGA Executive RoundTable: Key Element in your Design Future” tomorrow at the FPGA Virtual Summit.