Embedded Software IP & Technology Transfer in Power Electronics Applications

FPGA-based Custom Motor Drives Design: The Role of 3rd-party System-Level IP

For those who didn’t have the chance to be at the annual IEEE Industrial Electronics Conference (IECON) 2012 conference in Montréal, Qc last week, you may have a look at the slides of my presentation :

I take this opportunity to thank the organizers of the Industry Forum – Michael Condry and Richard Grisel  – for their kind invitation to participate at this conference.

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 Controllers – IEEE Industrial Electronics Mazagine March 2011

Another great ‘survey’ article has been written by Dr. Éric Monmasson and his team and published in the IEEE Industrial Electronics Magazine of March 2011 and titled ‘FPGA-based Controllers – Different Perspectives of Power Electronics and Drives Applications’. Here’s the abstract of their article:

This article presents the benefits of using field-programmable gate array (FPGA)-based controllers for power electronics and drive applications. For this purpose, an algorithm perspective is first proposed, where it is stated that, depending on the intrinsic parallelism properties as well as level of complexity, it makes sense to implement each control algorithm on a specific hardware and/or software architecture to get the best performances in terms of execution time or the best ratio performance versus cost. Then, an application perspective is proposed where the constraints specifically linked to the control of power converters are discussed.

You may access it here on the IEEE Xplore.

FPGA Technology as a Platform for Innovation Integration in Motor Drives Apps

For those who didn’t have the chance to be at e-Drive’s Motor, Drive & Automation System conference in San Antonio, TX last march, you may have a look at the slides of my presentation :

Note: this presentation has been tailored to be given to a motor drives specialist audience, not to a FPGA-based embedded system designers audience.

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.

FPGA-as-a-platform

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 !

Why FPGAs are better than DSPs for Motor Control ?

That’s the main question I have been asked at last IEEE Energy Conversion & Congress Expo (ECCE2010) at Atlanta last month where Alizem had its booth demoing its COTS Motor Control IP for Pump and Fan Applications released last spring (see white paper and datasheet on Alizem’s website).

The answer to this question may be similar to asking if the latest Lady Gaga album is better on CD or as mp3 files running on an iPod. Technically, the IP performance (the music) is going the be the same on both platforms, the difference is the IP form factor and all its implications for the singer, the music platform manufacturer and the user. CDs need to be manufactured, delivered, may be scratched, stolen, etc. while mp3 files (whatever the format) are pure IP that can be easily dowloaded from anywhere at practically no cost, has higher margins, no degradation over time, etc. I already did that kind of exposé in by Motor Control IC vs Motor Control IP blog post.

On another perspective, if we strictly consider FPGA vs DSP chip for motor control (and in a general embedded system design perspective) it is obvious that DSP wins the battle. Why ? Because FPGAs are blank chips while DSP are chips having built-in processor & peripherals meaning that out-of-the box you can begin to develop your application software on a DSP while you cannot on an FPGA (you need to design the HW layer first then proceed to SW development). Hence FPGAs have one level of complexity higher than DSP and while this can become on one side an advantage (increased flexibility for new features bringing more value) it is on the other side a disadvantage because the same solution is going to cost more and take more time to develop (based on the same engineering methodology which to build everything in-house from scratch). We are not even talking about the fact that most motor control people are currently DSP/MCU users hence have not necessarily the skills for HW development.

Hence the strict FPGA approach doesn’t offer to motor control designer to have “more with less” compared to DSP. At that level, the only tangible advantage for FPGAs is to provide to motor control system designer a single design environment where the complete system – HW&SW – can be developped (as opposed to the conventional approach where each chip has its own tools that needs to be learnt and where lots of time is invested in component integration).

To overcome this problem, we need to consider “FPGA & IP” vs DSP. That is completely different. With an FPGA & IP approach, the HW development phase is reduced to its minimum which is to integrate IP components together (processor IP, motor control IP, communications IP, HMI IP, etc.). While this process can be a nightmare if not done correctly, it takes only a few minutes if done with the correct tools (e.g. using SOPC Builder in the case of Altera FPGAs – hence their slogan ‘from ideas to system in minutes’ – or using Xilinx’s Platform Studio).

Real gains over DSP approach are made by using system components around the processor that are application-specific (here’s a great blog article on application-specific intellectual property, ASIP): not only the designer has the freedom to select IP components that strictly fits its design (no more, no less), but his IP providers are continously working to improve them to specifically fit their needs (this goes beyond traditionnal processor peripherals) hence providing always more value over time (wheter functionnal features and/or reducing integration time).

For motor control systems, that means passing from one-fits-all/generic PWM blocks and transducer interfaces (to be configured by the system designer) to specific (pre-configured) motor control block that includes PWM, transducers interfaces and software drivers running on a FPGA embedded processor (read this white paper for more details). That processor can even be the same processor that you have always been using but integrated on an FPGA (I am refering here to Freescale’s ColdFire processor that’s available as IP for Altera FPGAs, there’s certainly more to come) !

DSP

FPGA

FPGA & IP

Out-of-the-box experience

Great.

Low.

Great.

Processor

Fixed.

None.

Configurable.

HW components (peripherals)

Fixed.

None.

Configurable.

System components integration

Tedious (HW)

Easy (SW).

Easy (SW)

Requires Motor Control expert

Yes.

Yes.

No.

Cost of HW/SW maintenance

High.

Very High.

Low.

In this scheme, we can see a shift of the “secret” motor control sauce from the system designer to the (application-specific) IP provider. In reality, the real secret sauce is always in the hands of the motor control system designer which is to build the best machine for a targeted application. By leveraging motor control IP in his design, he can invest his time and ressources in doing a better sauce, quicker and cheaper.

All this happens by considering the FPGA chip as a system integration platform for third-party IP where gains (leading to lower TCO) come from ease of component integration (software integration) in a single design environment and leverage of outsourced domain expertise through IP procurement/reuse, especially in the case of very complex applications such as motor control.

FPGAs and Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles

During the summer, I have had the chance to drive during one week one of the five Toyota Plug-in Hybrid currently under test in Canada. Those vehicles are part of a experimental project involving Toyota and canadian universities, among them Université Laval and its power electronics lab LEEPCI (my former lab). Click here to see the public announcement made with Toyota during the summer.

The vehicle is actually working very fine and it is a real pleasure to drive. For those interested, I did use only 3L of gas for normal use during the week (around 80km) which is very energy efficient! Click on the figure below to see more pictures of the car :

Where’s the link with this blog ? EV are obviously heavy power electronics applications by being used to convert energy stored in the batteries to the motor and vice-versa (motor to batteries while braking). Where’s the link with FPGAs? You may be interested to read this SAE Report written by Delphi people in 2006 and titled “FPGA considerations for Automotive applications”. According to its authors,

The complexity of automotive products will continue to increase, even as the pressure to decrease the development cycle, decrease cost, and increase quality and reliability mounts. FPGA usage to meet application needs will continue to grow as a means of reducing cycle time and development costs. Understanding and developing all aspects of FPGA manufacturing, design, implementation, application usage and performance can address the quality and reliability aspects of using FPGAs as product solutions. A low unit cost should not be the only major driving factor in choosing an FPGA. It has been shown that there are other items that can significantly add to unit cost based on the design methodology used for the implementation and verification of an FPGA. The complexity and challenge of implementing an FPGA device will erode any advantages of a traditional design flow. FPGA development requires discipline in assuring adherence to robust practices.

Briefly, they mean to have a look to the total cost of ownership (TCO) against other IC solutions.