Embedded Software IP & Technology Transfer 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 !

FPGA and Embedded Motor Control Software IP – A Review of 2014

iStock_000048509430smallDear reader, thank you for reading my blog. I take this opportunity to wish you an happy new year 2015, fulfilled with great new designs and hopefully as few bugs as possible. Like previous years, I will take some time to review – from my perspective – the last year in the excitating world of electronics innovation (device + software) related to power electronics applications.

2014: The SoC year

For me 2014 has been the “SoC” year with main FPGA manufacturers (i.e. Altera & Xilinx) heavily promoting their new ARM processor centric + FPGA fabric devices (the Cyclone V SoC for Altera and the Zynq for Xilinx). While the idea of having a hard processor connected to a FPGA is not new (Microsemi is doing this since a while with SmartFusion released by Actel in 2009 and Xilinx have had hard PowerPC processors in their Virtex II since 2002), the idea of positionning those devices as “software-centric” is new. What it means is: with those SoC devices (Cyclone V & Zynq), you are not buying a FPGA anymore: you are buying a software programmable chip that has a bunch of peripherals around two ARM processors plus some FPGA fabric. That’s a radical change of mentality from hardware companies that must be applauded. The typical embedded software guy can now program a “FPGA SoC” device without having to deeply know about FPGA first: they can start programming their application software of the ARM processor and then optimize I/Os & some hardware accelerated functions with FPGAs. This is without mentionning that those device now integrate in the large ARM software ecosystem and all synergies that it provides.

How this impacts power electronics apps ? From an system architecture point of view, a power converter (for motor control and solar power conversion) is only another type of peripheral inside a system (just like an audio or a video peripheral). Electronic product devices typically have three interfaces: (1) a human machine-interface (buttons), (2) a communication interface (for external world data exchange / IoT) and (3) a specialized interface (in the case of a surveillance system, that’s a camera in the case of an electric motor drive that’s a power stage). Hence, in my opinion, those SoC devices are going to accelerate a convergence toward standard system architecture that include standard interfaces (for HMI and communication) and specialized interfaces (like camera or power converter). In the example of a smart camera system, you can think to have one processor dedicated to the general management of the application, one processor dedicated to extracting image features coming out of the camera and part of the FPGA fabric dedicated to run the multi-axis smart camera motor controller.

For more reading on the topic, I invite you to read Kevins Morris articles on this topic (this one, this one and this one). Also, don’t miss Adam Taylor’s MicroZed Chronicles: he did an amazing job of releasing ~60 blog articles in the last year on using Xilinx Zynq SoC devices.

Google Little Box Challenge

Last July, Google has launched an amazing power electronics system design challenge called the Little Box Challenge. Basically it means to “figure out how to shrink an inverter down to something smaller than a small laptop (a reduction of > 10× in volume) and smaller than everyone else”. Cash price is 1M$. According to Don Tan – president of the IEEE Power Electronics Society (PELS) – “the inverter will have to have an efficiency greater than 95 percent and handle loads of 2 kVA. It also has to fit in a metal enclosure of no more than 40 cubic inches (655 cubic centimeters) and withstand 100 hours of testing“. This is a great opportunity for  wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors device manufacturers to show their energy-efficiency benefits and for the best power electronics system designers to show their talent and creativity. The grand prize winner will be announced sometime in January, 2016.

Altera MAX10: Getting some A2D to PLDs

Back to the electronic device world. Last September, Altera has announced the availability of a new type of device: the MAX10. From my understanding, this device positions at the high end of the MAX PLD family and the low-end of the Cyclone family. Hence, this is a very low-cost device (as typical MAX PLD) but has full-featured FPGA capabilities (as Cyclone device) which means that you can embedded a NIOS II soft processor in this device (not possible with previous MAX PLDs). The most important feature – that is especially relevant to power electronics control system design – is that this devices integrates 1 or 2 analog-to-digital (A2D) converter blocks, depending on the device model. In the design of a FOC electric motor drive for example, those A2D can be obviously used to sample phase currents. Typical DSP and MCU have integrated A2Ds and this was missing into the low-cost FPGA space (the notable exception being Microsemi’s mixed-signal FPGAs, but those are not positionned as ‘low-cost’ devices).

Again, you can read Kevin Morris on this topic.

Alizem COTS software for mission-critical motor electric motor drives applications

You know my firm Alizem innovates in the field of power electronics embedded software. The goal being to help system/product designers to spend less time reinventing the wheel and spend more time and money building their true product differenciation by reusing pre-tested software. In 2014, Alizem has released a brand new product meant to reduce energy loss and increase fault robustness of PMSM and BLDC motors. This new product is based on a technology developped over the last 10 years at the Canadian Space Agency. This is a great fit in aerospace applications (i.e. “More Electric Aircraft” technologies) that are always looking for ways to reduce airplane fuel consumption (they can achieve same performance with 20% smaller motors, hence reduced weight, space and fuel). Same logic applies for automotive industry. This is a perfect example of how EDA/IP industry can help OEM to integrate more innovation (value) in their products while reducing developments costs, risks and time-to-market.

My ebook on “How to design a custom electric motor drive system using COTS components ?”

That’s something I wanted to write since a long time because there are a lots of books on the market on the different aspects of electric motor drive design (i.e. electric machine design, power converter design, controller design) but none treating specifically on the embedded software of this application with a practical approach. While it may be improved, I am glad of the result and I invite you to download it for FREE. I would be more than happy to receive your comments about it (send me an email).

This review is for sure incomplete but – in my opinion – it gathers important points of 2014. Please let me know if you think I forgot something important. Again, happy design for 2015!

FPGA-based Motor Control and Embedded Motor Control Software IP – A review of 2013

Time passes and it is now the moment to make a short review of what happenned, in my opinion, in the world of FPGA-based Motor Control and Embedded Motor Control software IP in 2013:

New FPGA evaluation kits

Lattice has started the year with the release of its new iCE40 LP384 development kit. While not being explicitely targeted for motor control but controllers in general, this FPGA is small and very low cost: less than 50 cents per unit in multi-million unit quantities.  Even the evalutation kit is very low cost: both iCEblink40-HX1K Evaluation Kit and iCEblink40-LP1K Evaluation Kit are sold for 34.12$. Of course, those kits do not include any power stage, motor or transducers: you need to have your own.

A month later, Altera has annouced the release of its new Cyclone V SoC development kit. Built around a 800 MHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and provided with all interfaces needed for maximum connectivity, this new device is clearly positionned in the same segment than Xilinx’s Zynq device (also built around ARM Cortex A9 dual-core processor) previously released in 2012. This kit interfaces with the FalconEye 2.0 motor control board.

Embedded Motor Control Software IP

In February, Texas Instrument (TI) has announced the release of their new INSTASpin-FOC sensorless motor control software. The pitch is “Identify, tune and fully control your motor in less than 5 minutes and eliminate the need for a mechanical rotor sensor” and meant to be used on TO C2000 Piccolo microcontrollers. According to TI, this helps saving months of design time which is inline with a topic previously addressed on this blog. To my knowledge, TI is currently the only motor control chip manufacturer offering such advanced motor control design tool. Note that this tool is meant to be used in sensorless applications, i.e. applications where near zero speed performance is not a requirement.

In October, my company Alizem has announced that our previously released Motor Control Software IP for Servo-Drives applications has reached a new level of performance on 100kW motors which has led into a licensing agreement with a major industrial OEM. At the same time, we have announced the signature of an agreement with the Canadian Space Agency regarding new motor control software technologies (stay tuned for the release shortly).

DesignNews Webinar

In May, I have had the pleasure of being invited to participate in a Webinar on the specific topic of FPGA-based motor control and sponsored by Altera.  The discussion has been held around the following questions:

• What are the typical steps and challenges faced by system designers when designing motion controllers?
• From a motion control design point of view, how do FPGA/SoC devices and design flows compares to other devices?
• Communication networks are clearly critical: What are some of the challenges of Industrial Ethernet?
• What design tools and flows are needed to maximize system designer productivity?
• What is needed from device providers to enable designers to go further in their product innovation?
• What factors can reduce the overall cost of ownership of motion control development platforms?
The webinar is still available for off-line consultation if you are interested.


Is there anything else missing ? If you think yes, please let me know ! You can also contact me on any topic you would like me to address. Thanks for reading my blog!

FPGA-based Motor Control and Motor Control Software IP – A review of 2012

Here is my review of the main events that have happened in 2012 in the world of FPGA-based motor control and Motor Control Software IP.

A new kit from Microsemi and Trinamic

In February, Microsemi and Trinamic did release their new Motor Control Software development kit. This new kit combines three features crucial for successful implementation of complex motor control algorithms: an embedded microcontroller, programmable analog fabric, and programmable digital (FPGA) fabric. This kit is built around Microsemi’s SmartFusion chip and embedded ARM Cortex M-3 processor. It is bundled with stepper motor and BLDC motor. Here’s the video that’s been presented at DesignWest 2012. Of course, one key feature of Microsemi is their analog part that can be used for motor sensing leading to reductions of  overall system complexity and operational costs.

Microsemi did also release its new SmartFusion2 in october mentionning they are already have engagement from customer building critical systems in a broad range of applications including flight data recorders, weapons systems, defibrillators, handheld radios, communications management systems and industrial motor control.

On Altera, Xilinx and Lattice side

No new kit have been released from Xilinx and Altera this year, only one from Lattice. Actually, this kit is not intended for “motor control” specifically but rather for “complex system control” in general and also “video interface design”. According to the previous article, the kit offers a wealth of other built-in system resources that engineers can use to build realistic system prototypes with both digital and analog control‚ human interfaces (electret microphone‚ speaker/headphone‚ LED) and a wide variety of interfaces to external devices and systems (USB 2.0‚ microSD‚ GPIO).

In October, Xilinx did release a new PWM IP that specically releverage FPGA properties to reduce the level of noise compared to standard PWM. This is particularly refreshing to see this since advanced PWM is certainly a domain where FPGA can have and advantage compared to more conventionnal devices since it involves complex calculations at high speed. This is something I did mention in my “Electric motor power savings: The true impact of the device selection” post.

Altera did release its new framework in November 2012 at SPS/IPS Drives conference that is a design environment that help motor control system designer to leverage the different Altera EDA tools in its FPGA-based motor control design process. This framework contains a “drive-on-a-chip” reference design that can be used with the EBV kit or the INK kit.


New Motor Control IP for Altera FPGAs from Alizem

After having released its new on-line boutique in October, Alizem did release its new off-the-shelf motor control software IP for Altera FPGAs. This new software has been tested on real motors from 30W to 86kW and includes many debugging functions for the power stage, the transducers and system protection that helps the motor control system designer in developping new systems safer, cheaper and faster. This new motor control software IP has received AMPP certification in december.

This product is completely in-line with my presentation at IECON2012 on the topic of “FPGA-based Custom Motor Drives Design: The Role of 3rd-party System-Level IP“.

What to expect in 2013 ?

With increased market pressure for lower costs and more innovations, the field of custom motor drives is expected to be more in demand in 2013 and the coming years. According to this market reserach, custom design and manufacturing of an inverter’s sub-unit is driving the modular approach accross applications. According to the same study, major changes are happenning accross the supply chain because power electronics often requires having several types of knowledge and experience gained know-how in mechanics, electronics, semiconductors, electrics, fluidics and hydraulics, and connectors and its development can be complicated and final products expensive.

 Is there anything missing ?

Please let me know by sending me a message via Twitter. You can also contact me on any question you would like me to address on the field of FPGA-based motor control and motor control software IP.

Thanks for reading my blog, I hope you find it useful.

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 !