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How FPGAs Can Make Industry 4.0 Work

How FPGAs Can Make Industry 4.0 Work
Posted 12/22/2022 by Bob O’Donnell, President and chief analyst, TECHnalysis Research

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One of the hottest topics in tech is the concept of Industry 4.0, which essentially refers to digitization, automation, and connected computing intelligence being brought to the world of manufacturing. The idea is to blend the value and capabilities of cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI) together in a way that allows for smarter, more reliable, and more efficient operations in manufacturing and other industrial environments.

An essential part of the Industry 4.0 vision is the creation of intelligent connected machines. For decades, much of the equipment used in these types of environments offered very limited means of interacting with them. Physical knobs, gauges, and other simple, visual mechanisms often provided the sole means to understand their current state. Over time, various industries developed simple forms of connectivity and monitoring including PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) and SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) for these machines’ hardware physical connections and software monitoring, respectively.

As technology has evolved and the demands on all these various pieces of equipment have grown, many industrial systems now integrate advanced computing engines and multiple types of modern connectivity standards including industrial ethernet, Wi-Fi and even 5G. In addition, there’s been an increased focus on more advanced software tools and applications for things like predictive maintenance, robotic automation, and much more.

Because of the unique and highly specialized nature of these devices, it turns out that many of them require computing solutions that can be easily customized for the specific roles they play. Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), which are a type of semiconductor chip that can be programmed to perform almost any type of computing function, have proven to be particularly well-suited to these types of demanding devices and applications.

FPGAs provide device makers with the unique ability to create a computing engine or co-processor that can be specifically optimized for their needs. And, unlike custom ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits), which are another type of chip that can be used for specialized applications, FPGAs offer the added benefit of being reprogrammable or updatable after the system has been deployed. This capability can be incredibly important during the development process for a specific machine because product requirements often change. In addition, industrial equipment often has product lifetimes measured in decades (not just years), so the ability to update existing machines to support new standards or meet evolving technical demands can prove to be invaluable.

One of the many other unique capabilities of FPGAs is their ability to process data or perform certain functions in a consistent, time-sensitive matter. That’s why, in fact, they’re often used in networking, telecom, and other types of latency-sensitive environments where stable, uniform completion of certain functions is critical. Many industrial environments have similar types of demands, once again making FPGAs well-suited to their specialized needs.

As powerful, flexible, and capable as FPGAs can be, one potential belief is that they can be challenging for software developers to write applications that run on them. Because of their unique architectures, many standard development environments and programming tools won’t work with FPGAs. To help overcome that, it’s critical to find software tools that are optimized for them. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, some of those tools come from FPGA chipmakers themselves.

Lattice Semiconductor, for example, has developed a whole range of software tools to not only design the unique capabilities of the FPGA chip itself, but also the software to run on those chips. Until recently, Lattice focused the majority of its FPGA efforts on its low-power Lattice Nexus™ platform based devices, but the company just unveiled its new Lattice Avant™ platform that expands its reach into the mid-range FPGA portion of the market. The move enables the company to address more applications in the industrial space, as well as in other markets like comms infrastructure, datacenters, and automotive. This new platform will be the basis for new families of Lattice FPGAs. The new offerings feature 2.5x better power efficiency, 2X faster performance, and 6X smaller physical packages than similar competitive chips, making Lattice Avant much better suited to the increased processing demands of industrial equipment.

From a software perspective, the good news is that Lattice’s new Avant FPGAs leverage the company’s Lattice Radiant® and Lattice Propel™ tools for chip design, as well as the company’s many application-specific solution stacks, such as Lattice Automate, mVision, sensAI, Sentry, and ORAN for factory automation, machine vision, AI, security, and 5G applications, respectively. This means that companies and developers who have experience with these tools for Nexus-based designs can leverage that knowledge for the new Avant line as well. So, for example, if a company used a Lattice’s Nexus device for something like a hardware-based root of trust or some other fixed function capability in one of their existing machines but wanted to use an Avant FPGA to perform more advanced applications, the experience of using those Lattice software tools would carry over.

Achieving the Industry 4.0 vision is a long-term goal that is arguably still in its infancy. Many industrial organizations and equipment suppliers are very conservative in their adoption of advanced technologies and their pace of change often occurs much more slowly than the general market. Still, it’s clear that companies are starting the process and looking for innovative solutions that can help them modernize their operations. Powerful FPGAs like those from Lattice, along with the essential software tools needed to best leverage them, offer distinct advantages as they start to move their organizations forward.

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can rel="noopener noreferrer" follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.