FPGA Technology and Software IP in Power Electronics Applications

FPGA-based motor control – A Review of 2011

To begin 2012, let’s recap major events/announcements that have been made in the exciting world of FPGA-based motor control during 2011:

FPGA vendors

In March, Microsemi announced its new Industrial Ecosystem for SmartFusion Intelligent Mixed Signal FPGAs. This ecosystem is intended to specifically address the following markets/applications: Power Metering and Smart Grid, Motor Control (PMSM, BLDC, Stepper), Human-Machine Interfaces, Displays and Field Devices. A week later, Microsemi announced their comprehensive product portfolio for solar power applications which includes computing devices (SmartFusion) but also analog and switching components (IGBT, diodes, etc.) – which is the logic result of the Microsemi’s acquisition of Actel during fall 2010 (on this thread read this). Unfortunately, no news on the announced SmartFusion-based motor control development kit during the year, but those who did attend APEC 2011 at Forth Worth, TX, have had the chance to have a look at Microsemi’s SmartFusion FPGA-based motor control development kit at Alizem‘s booth:

Microsemi's SmartFusion FPGA-based Motor Control development kit

On Xilinx’s side, 2011 has been an important year with the release of their new ARM-based Zynq devices and also the release of a new Xilinx Spartan6 FPGA-based motor control development kit. The big news regarding Xilinx’s Zynq for FPGA-based motor control designers is that it has integrated A2D converters, an element that’s crucial to advanced motor drives systems. Except Microsemi’s SmartFusion, no FPGA vendor had a device with integrated A2Ds and this was certainly one important point missing against conventionnal devices (DSPs & MCUs) which all have integrated A2Ds for control system applications. According to Xilinx, this new Zynq device is going to be in production by the end of 2012 and it is positionned as a device that’s more than a processor, more than an asic and more than an fpga.

On Altera’s side, a new Motor Control development kit has been released during the summer and based on Arrow’s BeMicro low-cost form factor (145$). This platform is intended as an introductory platform for new comers in FPGA-based embedded system design which may then proceed to more advanced system design using already available Arrow’s MotionFire and EBV’s Falcon Eye Altera FPGA-based motor control development kits. Regarding devices, Altera has also made a move toward ARM-based system with their SoC FPGA and released a specific white paper for motor control using SoC FPGA. On a more educationnal side, Altera has released many publications this year intended specifically to FPGA-based motor control system designers such as 4 reasons why FPGA are right for Motor Control.

While we haven’t hear very much about Lattice in motor control / power electronics apps for a while, 2011 has been an exception with the release of a new LatticeECP3 Versa Development Kit in April. This kit is intended to be used in many computing intensive applications including Solar Panel Controllers and Data Acquisition & Control and also Video Transmission and Repeaters, Video Image Signal Processing, Camera Controllers, Network Traffic Management and Resilient Network Construction.

Motor control “apps” / subsystem IP

Over the years, this blog has published some articles explaining why the concept of “Motor Control IP/apps” – as a way to externalize/outsource motor control expertise – is an innovative and interesting option to motor control system designers to achieve their system performance while reducing cost and time to market (read Motor Control IC vs Motor Control IP and Why FPGAs are better than DSPs for Motor Control ?). I did present a synthesis of those ideas as invited speaker at the e-Drive’s Motor, Drive & Automation System conference in San Antonio, TX, in March and the presentation has now been viewed online more than +1300 times. Those ideas are inline with the concept of “Subsystem IP” which is now perceived as a key part in “Imminent EDA Transformation” and the “Core of Modern Semiconductor Design“. The whole idea of an “apps-store” for embedded systems is now taking reality with the recent launch of the ARM/Avnet Embedded Software Store and also the D&R Embedded: this is probably only the beginning. Hence, ideas from only a couple years ago are definitely taking place and are changing ways to approach the difficult task of embedded system design.

What to expect in 2012?

This is always a tricky question to address but if you follow this blog regularly, you can see a momentum building toward greater adoption of FPGAs as electronic system platform for motor drive systems design and “IPs/Apps” as building blocks for motor drive system designers. Having now the major FPGA companies aligned on this market is definitely a good indicator. Regarding this blog, you may expect some change toward more content on the “IPs/Apps” side (i.e. pure motor control algorithms/software) not only oriented toward FPGA, but also toward other electronic devices on the market. More on this later in 2012…

Meanwhile, thanks for your interest and I wish you success in your power electronics system design in 2012 !

FPGA-based motor control – A Review of 2010

This time of the year is a great moment to take a few steps back and observe what the last year has been made of and to speculate on what we can expect in 2011. We already know that 2010 has been a very important year for FPGAs with 47% growth in sales (check Kevin Morris’ recap article ‘Banner Year: 2010 in FPGAs in Review’). With no surprise, 2010 has also been a great year for FPGA-based motor control / power electronics apps, here are the highlights:

FPGA vendors and motor control kits

After Altera released 2 motor control kits in 2008 (Arrow’s MotionFire and EBV’s Falcon Eye), Xilinx and Microsemi have both announced the release of a new FPGA-based motor control kit. Actel/Microsemi did initially demo theirs at ESC in April 2010 while Xilinx have announced their new Targeted Design Platform at SPS/IPC/DRIVES 2010 conference.

At the same conference, Altera has announced new EBV’s three-level inverter demo for motor control and solar power conversion applications. It is interesting to see such demo featuring advanced inverter topologies (i.e. something different than usual two-level inverter) in which FPGA can uniquely differentiate and provide application’s improvement (three-level inverter reduce time-harmonics losses in the converter and the load but require more computation than conventional two-level inverter, more in this article showing 44% power loss reduction in wind power conversion apps).

It is worth mentionning that National Instruments – with their FPGA-based CompactRIO platform – has made noticeable appearance at the EETimes Virtual Conference on Motor Control (having Altera & Texas Instrument as Gold sponsors) with NI’s VP of Industrial and Embedded Product Lines as keynote speaker.

Alizem COTS Motor Control IP

In May 2010, Alizem has released its COTS Motor Control IP for Pump and Fan applications for Altera FPGAs. It is the first application-specific COTS Motor Control IP to be designed and sold as a plug-and-play virtual chip and meant to take advantage of FPGA technical capabilities to increase application performance and to be used by non-motor control and non-FPGA experts (see this blog articles article Motor Control IC vs Motor Control IP and also Why FPGAs are better than DSP for Motor Control ?). This IP has been demoed at ECCE2010 conference and has been the object of an article published by EETimes Programmable Logic Designline.

Some important articles

In August, Motion Control Association published an article of FPGA Motor Control (“Playing the field“) featuring Alizem, Xilinx and National Instruments. A great article on FPGA-based motor control has also been published by Xilinx (“Creating a Greener Future for Industrial Motor Control“) in october.


I think one of the biggest event in 2010 has been one that’s impacting not only Motor Control but any high-level embedded system applications which is the paradigm shift toward “FPGA-as-a-platform”, that is considering the FPGA not as a chip (like a DSP or MCU) both rather as a component (IP) integration platform (like a “software” PCB). Of course, this idea is not new (i.e. that’s not the first year that we are speaking about the concept of system-on-chip), but many important event have happened in 2010 that’s making it a reality.

One of them is Cadence’s EDA 360 manifesto (that’s directed to the whole electronic industry not only FPGA SoC design) which is about “apps-driven” design, i.e. making the application’s requirements at the center of system design instead of the current hardware-first paradigm. Apple’s iPhone has been used by many people in the industry as a concrete example of this new approach to system-level design (Steve Leibson, Daniel Nenni, Kevin Morris, Jim Turley, Brian Bailey and many others).

This shift in design approach is opening a system-level IP/apps era providing new levels of productivity to the system designer (Altera has already upgraded its own tools in that direction with Qsys). That’s exactly what’s needed in complex applications such as motor control where designers are still loosing so much time learning tools and demystiyfing motor control while they could spend this time working on their true product’s differentiation (if you have doubts about this, attend a motor control webinar given by any motor control IC vendor).

Is anything important missing ?

Please let me know. Meanwhile, I wish you success in 2011 in your FPGA-based power electronics applications design ! Thanks for your interest in reading this blog !

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 ?



System Platform






Component integration






Component cost (per unit, roughly)



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



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:



System Platform




IC (inluding FPGA)


Component integration






Component cost



Design a complete system from scratch in one day



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 :



Motor Control component form factor




May vary





Lead time



Component obsolesence

May happen.


Motor Control application-specific

No – Generic

Yes – Specific

Integration with main controller



Component pin layout



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.

Smart Grid : An opportunity for FPGAs in Home Appliance space?

According to this EEtimes article, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) took the opportunity of being at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to release a very well written 25 pages document titled “The Home Appliance Industry’s Principles & Requirements for Achieving a Widely Accepted Smart Grid“. In this document, the AHAM – based on its unique perspective to the Smart Grid Vision – is intended to provide three essential requirements for the Smart Grid’s interaction with consumers in order for the Smart Grid to be successful. Among those three requirements, the second one is the most interesting from a technological (embedded systems) perspective :

Communication Standards must be open, flexible, secure, and limited in number

This requirements then splits in four requirements : open, flexible, secure and limited in number.

From a FPGA perspective, flexible sounds very familiar because its embedded in the name of the technology itself : Field-Programmable. But is this flexibility may solve problems and help the development of Smart Grid enabled homes ? According to the authors,

Smart Grid enabled homes will have varying levels of sophistication, depending on the type of appliances, devices, and networks that are installed. There are many configurations, combinations, and options for energy management inside the home. Some possibilities could include a simple email notice for a manual demand response by the consumer, a smart meter directly communicating with a specific appliance to ask it to turn on and off, or a meter communicating with a Programmable Communicating Thermostat allowing for temperature adjustment.”

From now to the moment that every appliance is going to talk the same language – even with such standardization, that is limited to the US only – one can think that this is going to be long and costly. This process has been started since a long time on industrial side (with many types of protocols) and there is still no single communication standard. Altera and Xilinx are actually taking advantage of this massive willingness to connect but protocol-segmented environment. Their programmable chip solutions enables them to sell a platform on which industrial equipment manufacturers can then use to build their own platform which is going to be finally customized with a regional/market-specific set of IP blocks. This approach enables flexibility while also reducing costs and time to market.

Is the same idea is going to happen in Home Appliance space ? As we all know, this high-volume market is very focused on costs. Not considering smart grid, a chip to chip price analysis would probably give only small chances to FPGAs. But considering that :

- according to a recent Whirlpool survey, 84% of consumers choose energy – not water or time – as most important when it comes to home appliance efficiency, and that

- according to Electric Power Research Institute, the implementation of Smart Grid technologies could reduce electricity use by more than 4 percent by 2030 providing a mean savings of $20.4 billion for businesses and consumers,

… there may have an opportunity there for FPGA chip manufacturers. Among the most important ones, Altera is already there.

Horses and FPGAs

Kevin Morris’ most recent article of FPGA and Structured ASIC Journal makes a very humourous but interesting analogy between FPGA vs ASICs design battle and the battle that occured not so long ago between car cars vs horses as a mean of transportation :

The new BMW 5-series sedan outperforms the horse and buggy in every important way. Your family will travel farther in a day and arrive less fatigued thanks to our superior cruising speed, climate-controlled cabin, and luxurious upholstery. It’s so much easier to use as well – no more hitching up the team before you start, and no more watering, feeding, and grooming at the end of the day. You just turn the key and drive away. Simple as that. So, before you snap up that new stallion you’ve been eyeing – consider a car instead.”

Morris’ article gets interesting at the end where he points out that applications that can benefit from hardware programmability are subject to profound change :

FPGA companies are defending against this attack, of course, by equipping their devices with both hard- and soft-core processors so that they can reap the advantages of software programmability as well. The outcome of that game, however, will probably be determined by the existence of design requirements that mandate hardware programmability – features where software cannot deliver the performance or power efficiency required. Designs with these sorts of requirements will remain in the sweet spot of FPGA, while general-purpose embedded platforms have a better-than-even chance of winning where software alone can do the job.”

This is obviously the case with power electronics applications.

FPGA-based embedded systems and economic slowdown : a solution that makes sense

The current economic slowdown challenges every business model what the following question: how can we do better at a lower cost and time to market ? The embedded system business is not different and also faces this challenge. As published in this article :

As the economic slowdown takes its toll on development budgets, embedded-system designers are turning to FPGA (field-programmable-gate-array) technology to shorten design cycles, combat obsolescence, and simplify product updates“.

To complete this article and to fully consider FPGA as a platform enabling costs reductions, one’s must also consider the IP ecology evolving around the FPGA platform, as discussed at the last Design&Reuse 2008 conference in Grenoble, France.

This notion of FPGA as a platform is completely in line with Xilinx CEO Moshe Gavrielov’s vision :

“”Xilinx believes they need to focus less on being a technology innovator in order to create market opportunities, but instead pursue a business platform leadership position. This strategy appears to make sense since the last couple years analysts have pondered why ASIC designs have not seen a mass migration to FPGAs as expected. Instead ASIC starts have migrated more to ASSP products. This creates a huge opportunity for platform FPGAs to take market share from mid to low volume ASSPs.”

The same idea as been repeated here and it seems that wind is currently turning in this direction :

FPGAs are displacing ASICs—a trend that in 2009 will be exacerbated by the global financial crisis—and now have a 30-to-one edge in design starts, according to market research firm Gartner Inc. “.

DSPs, MCUs or Mixed Signal FPGAs in motor control?

Here is a good article on the subject from Actel…

While the article provides a general overview of variable-speed motor control drive importance in the industry , it also gives some interesting numbers :

electronic motor control could result in savings of as much as 15% of the total electric power used in the US. This equates to an annual reduction in energy consumption of as much as 300 billion KWh, thereby saving $15 billion and reducing greenhouse gasses by more than 180 million metric tons a year

Later, the author briefly summarize the pitch for FPGA against DSP and MCU by the following :

DSP : “these can be expensive and also typically require the addition of analog components, control elements and sub-systems

MCU : “have the advantage of being relatively cheap (around $1 to $2 for an industrial motor controller application), but they are typically clocked in the range of 10 to 50 MHz, which limits the speed with which they can control the pulse width modulation.

FPGA : “(…) FPGA fabric can be used to implement massively parallel processing of the motor control algorithms. [...] The use of a mixed-signal FPGA with an integrated soft processor allows motors to be built with sensor-less sinusoidal current control, eliminating costly sensors and further reducing the price of the electronic controls. [...] In addition to monitoring the bus voltage, motor currents, and speed, the combination of a Cortex-M1 processor in a mixed-signal FPGA can also perform diagnostics and handle any user interface requirements“.

Can we expect a new release of the Actel-Ishnatek FPGA-based motor control board in a near future ?

Alizem Home Appliance Motor Control IP @ CES 2009, Las Vegas

I will be presenting Alizem Home Appliance Motor Control IP at Altera booth at next CES 2009 show held in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Alizem and Altera have recently published a white paper (english version, chinese version) regarding FPGA-based Motor Control solutions for Home Appliance space.

See you there!

Altera’s CEO speaks on FPGA-based Motor Control for power savings

In a recent article, Altera’s CEO, John Daane, has clearly expressed the idea that FPGA are well positionned to enable “technology which allows people to save energy“.

According to Daane, “66 per cent of the world’s industrial electricity runs motors, but only five per cent use variable speed drivers. FPGAs can be used in most motor controllers because they are programmable”. Those figures are comparable with other well-known published numbers on world’s energy consumption, such as those of IEEE-Fellow Dr. Bimal Bose’s article on the environmental impact of power electronic applications.

This article also reveals the existence of two new Altera FPGA-based Motor Control development platforms : Arrow’s Motion Fire and EBV’s Falcon Eye. Those platforms are meant to design motor controller for industrial applications using PMSM, BLDC or induction motors. Both kits are currently bundled with BLDC motors. You can even get a feeling of the Motion Fire on YouTube.

Those are the first Altera platforms for Motor Control but not the first FPGA-based. There has been Xilinx-IRF Accelerator Platform but we don’t hear about it anymore. The second one has been the Fusion-based Actel-Ishnatek platform who is still available for purchase.

With the recent rise of energy prices and the need for power savings, is this the first sign of a new battle in the motor control field ?

FPGA-based Motor Control Design – A new era has come in power electronics

The movement has been going on for a few years and it accelerates. From specialized digital signal processing chips mainly used in communication applications, FPGA manufacturers have entered in the embedded system market to compete DSP and MCU chips.

Regarding raw computing performances (and not considering cost and design methodology), it is generally accepted that FPGAs, with their inherent parallelism capabilities, outperforms DSPs by many order of magnitude. This has a positive impact on performance on computional intensive applications such as digital signal processing and real-time control.

Knowing that more than 60% of electric power in the industrialized world is used to power electric motors, motor real-time control is an important application that can potentially take advantage of the high computing capabilities of FPGA-based embedded systems. Variable-speed motor drives are power electronics applications that have time-variant parameters and non-linear dynamics in which complex calculations must be achieved in real-time at high frequency to get optimal performance. Crunching numbers at high speed, this is exactly where FPGA can perform.

How motor control applications can benefit from FPGA technology ? What can a low-cost programmable hardware and software chip make better than a DSP or a MCU chip ?

There’s is no obvious answer to those questions and it must be looked not only on the technical perspective (performance gains), but also on a engineering perspective (better reliability) and a business perspective (cost reductions). Each of those perspective are going to the subject of subsequent posts.