Embedded Software IP & Technology Transfer 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 ?



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.


  1. This article is now referenced by the ‘industry expert’ section of Design & Reuse website :


  2. The iPhone + Apps analogy has been recently cited (using ‘iPads istead of iPhone) by a financial analyst:

    “When a designer uses standard silicon, say, something from Intel, there is little differentiation and product gross margin for the customer is 10% to 15%. If the designer can do something really unique and different, and the product has a capability that doesn’t look like anybody else’s, the company gets a much higher margin. Think of the iPad, as an example. You can differentiate an electronics product through software or semiconductors. Communications, industrial, military equipment companies, for example, need custom silicon. The old form of customizing silicon was an ASIC, which stands for “application-specific IC.” The customer would go to the ASIC vendor and say, “Could you design this function for me?” The ASIC supplier would charge the customer a design cost and charge per unit. Altera’s product, the PLD, is flexible. A designer can program it any way he needs, but it is much bigger and the unit cost is higher than an ASIC. What has happened is the ASIC vendor got stuck in old technology. ASIC vendors didn’t have the volume to build a new mega fab, and the design goes up exponentially every generation. Now the industry has reached a tipping point, where Altera’s product is not only easier to design, there is virtually no cost penalty per unit. The customer doesn’t have to pay for tooling. The programmable logic market is about $6 billion, and ASICs market is about $25 billion. There now is evidence that PLDs are cannibalizing the ASIC market, so investors are benefitting from increased communication infrastructure spending, strong industrial demand and a powerful replacement cycle”



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