Jan 22, 2015

ARM embraces 26262 Auto safety standard update

posted by Dick Selwood

A couple of months ago, I wrote about ISO 26262 and the changes that this was forcing on the chip development process. (Spaghetti versus ISO 26262 http://www.eejournal.com/archives/articles/20141125-iso26262).

Many of the chips used in vehicles use ARM processor cores, particularly the Cortex-R5, and today ARM has announced that it is making available a safety document set that provide developers with the information needed to demonstrate that their products are suitable for use in systems that meet the highest level (ASIL-D) of safety.

To do this, ARM went back over the entire development process, from initial specification through to final verification. This has been time consuming but as well as providing the material for the Cortex-R5, it confirmed that the development process was robust. It also means that the procedures are in place to produce the safety document sets as part of the normal development process for future cores.

The documentation can also be used for the core safety standard, IEC 61508 and other industry specific standards, such as IEC 62304 for medical products and DO-178 for defence.

As well as hardware, ARM is also supporting software. The ARM compiler is now certified by TUV-SUD as being appropriate for developing software for systems up to ISO 26262 ASIL-D and IEC 61508 SIL-3. Also within the R5, and other cores are functions like memory protection designed for safer software.

During the briefing Chris Turner of ARM came up with something that I hadn't thought of. One of the consequences of ISO 26262 is that there is now a common process and language that runs through the automotive industry, from the manufacturers like Audi and Mercedes, down to the lowest level of suppliers – something that has never existed. This can only be a good thing.

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Jan 21, 2015

Buckle your seat belts: the semi market could be about to explode.

posted by Dick Selwood

At the Future Horizons Semiconductor Industry Forecast on January 20th Malcolm Penn was in one of his classic ebullient modes. His message was "It is time to prepare for one of the strongest (and longest) upswings in chip industry history."

Firstly, the context: this time last year Penn predicted semi sales would grow by  8%, with the most pessimistic case being only 4% and the most optimistic 14%. In fact, with December still to be finalised, it looks like 9.9% for the year.

For 2015 his target is 8.5% growth, with sales of $364.183 billion ($1 billion day). However if we do see a recovery things will be very different. Penn's analysis of the last three upturns showed that the first four quarters of an upturn typically experience growth of around 30%.

However there is not only no spare manufacturing capacity at advanced nodes, TSMC sold out last year, but there is little capacity being built. And even if you start building today, it will be a least a year before you have chips. There is also virtually no inventory being held, all the way from wafers to finished goods. This means that growth will come from price increases as customers compete for the limited supply of chips. The owners of the advanced fabs, mainly TSMC, will be doing well financially.

So while I have been bewailing the lack of excitement in 2014, in one area, if Penn is right, 2015 could become very exciting.

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Jan 20, 2015

Towards Smaller Solar Inverters

posted by Bryon Moyer

Inverters are getting smaller.

We’re talking here about the inverters used in solar cells to convert the DC that they generate into AC for the grid. But there seem to be a couple of different motivations for this reduction in inverter size; I was made aware of them by a two different product releases.

First came an SoC from Semitech. Semitech has primarily been focused on power-line communications (PLC) on the so-called Smart Grid. Their focus hasn’t so much been on residential settings, where broadband connections dominate, but rather longer-distance machine-to-machine narrowband connections. We’re talking hundreds of (electric) meters communicating over a few kilometers.

That said, they noticed an opportunity. Traditionally, a single inverter will serve multiple panels; this helps keep cost down (always an issue as solar struggles to compete with other forms of energy). But Semitech notes that there are some weaknesses with this arrangement. In particular, the one inverter becomes a single point of failure that can take all of its panels out of action. Efficiency also gets tuned to the needs of the worst (e.g., most shaded) panel – meaning that energy is wasted from the other panels.

The ideal would be a micro-inverter for each panel – something that’s generally been a cost challenge. So Semitech is trying to reduce that added cost by integrating the inverter electronics (not the transformers) into the PLC chip. So any inverter that was intended to communicate could get the inverter control circuitry almost for free (it’s a small add-on to the PLC circuitry, which dominates the chip).

Semitech_image_ret_copy.png

(Click to enlarge)

Image courtesy Semitech.

By the way, apparently the same chip can be used for LED control if loaded with different software.

Meanwhile, ST Microelectronics announced a rather simpler product: an SiC diode. It replaces larger devices that have been needed in order to provide sufficient overcurrent margin. The new SiC diode can handle higher current spikes, contributing to a smaller inverter.

In this case, the small-inverter drive comes from a project driven by Google and IEEE called The Little Box Challenge. Here the idea is that smaller inverters will reduce the size of the cooler-sized box that’s currently needed for a residential solar installation. That makes it less of an eyesore, reduces the footprint, and – critically – reduces cost.

If you’re not part of the Challenge yet, it’s too late; registration is closed. The final prize will be announced next January.

That said, ST also seems heavily focused on the automotive market, saying that the new diode meets the requirements for such applications as on-board battery chargers for plug-in hybrids. It has a reverse breakdown of 650 V, and they boast zero recovery time.

ST_screenshot.png
 

Image courtesy ST Microelectronics

You can find out more about these two products in the releases (Semitech and ST); you can find out more about the Little Box Challenge here.

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