FPGAs provide greater industrial design flexibilityBy Michael Samuelian, Altera Corp. November 29, 2006 -- pldesignline.com
Industrial systems are generally based on upgraded designs using ASICs or ASSPs in most instances. In others, designers rely on more conventional electronics like microcontrollers (Cs) or microprocessors (Ps), discrete digital and analog devices, and memory chips. Unfortunately, each new product or upgrade takes engineering teams back to the drawing board when new features, functions, or improvements are required.
The ASIC and ASSP design approaches provide fixed platform for industrial product design, but are costly, have long development times and make product differentiation difficult. Also, using traditional discrete devices offers virtually no design advantages given today's engineering demands for greater design flexibility, product differentiation, and lower design costs.
ASIC, ASSP, and traditional chip-based designs continue to pale against the demands of newer generations of industrial systems. A new breed of industrial application calls for flexible customization of hardware and software platforms, higher performance digital signal processing (DSP), shorter product development cycles, lower design costs, and a more expeditious time-to-market.
Once relegated to the ranks of glue logic, newer FPGAs, super-charged with highly advanced and integrated functionality, now offer these and other design benefits.
An FPGA-based programmable platform provides industrial system designers the bedrock for rapid, low-cost product innovation and evolution. The flexibility of FPGAs provides designers with a unique way to create a single hardware design that serves as the basis for multiple and differentiated products, thus reducing design and manufacturing costs. This is possible because a programmable platform using FPGAs permits them to rapidly develop new features or functions simply by reprogramming in their design.
They can also design in new features and upgrades to respond to changing market demands and standards with minimal engineering effort. Plus, FPGAs allow upgrades to industrial products already in use on the plant floor.
Further, a platform design strategy like this allows greater product differentiation with potentially increased margins. It allows industrial systems to reach the market earlier with new features, while helping keep a brand name in front of customers. This further reduces the risk of a product design becoming obsolescent.
Product obsolescence incurs high hardware costs for industrial system OEMs running into the millions of dollars. Also, it's estimated that on average they spend 15 to 20 percent of their engineering time re-designing system functions and updating documentation.
FPGAs can significantly alleviate OEMs of this heavy cost burden. These devices are ideally suited for a many industrial applications including security and safety systems, industrial automation, control systems, field instrumentation and measurement, switch and control gear, environmental and building control, motor control, and others. They meet the performance and price-level requirements of these and other cost-sensitive industrial applications. A wide range of industrial field-bus standards, such as Profinet, Sercos III, Cip Synch, Ethernet-PowerLink, Ethernet IP or EtherCat highlights the remarkable flexibility FPGAs provides to designers. This array of different standards requires a substantial number of different adapter cards, each designed to comply with a dedicated standard. Producing these adapter cards demands a high logistical effort and the use of many discrete components.
In this instance, a single FPGA can be used to integrate the different field-bus standards, thus eliminating the need to and cost of developing multiple adapter cards. Only physical transceivers are required to adapt the electrical characteristics for the dedicated field buses.
The FPGA can be programmed during system manufacturing to provide tailored electronics for a particular field bus. Moreover, changes in a standard's specification can be easily implemented via re-programming in the field.
Process control and factory automation present other application examples. In these and other industrial designs, FPGAs combined with IP cores help to reduce development costs, increase design flexibility and shorten the development cycle.
FPGAs like Cyclone II have a 32-bit Nios II embedded processor that gives industrial designers the power and flexibility to implement application peripherals and achieve the required core performance. Here, cost and performance can be trade-offs to achieve a low-end, low-cost slave system or a higher-end, higher performance system with the processor core optimized for speed and needed peripherals.
A process control system monitors a manufacturing environment and electronically controls the process or manufacturing flow based on the limits the user establishes. In a representative process control system, a measuring device like a laser diode is used to detect a gas or liquid presence in an industrial environment. The frequency signature of the specific gas or liquid is sent to the receiver where it is converted to a digital signal and then identified by the processor. The host controller and automation system then use this identification for system tasks. As shown in Figure 1, the embedded processor in the FPGA controls the system, while the FPGA, fitted with specific IP cores, implements Ethernet media access control (MAC) functionality, a control area network (CAN) controller interface, UART, and the inter-integrated circuit bus (IC) controller interface.
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