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Mod Modules

Ultimodule Simplifies Early Production

Why do we choose FPGAs? Usually because we want to get our design to market faster, cut our design cost and risk, and have more flexible, versatile products at the end. Because the process of customizing the FPGA is getting increasingly efficient, the development of a working board is rapidly becoming the long pole in the tent of our design process. Today, design teams are spending as much time getting the FPGA to work properly on the board and connected to the outside world as they are on any other major phase of the process.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a solution for the board problem that did exactly what the FPGA does for the silicon? What if we could use a pre-designed and fabricated module that we could take from prototyping through early production without having to ever fire up our PCB design software? Development boards have been in use for years that provide us all the connections and interfaces we might need during development, but these are typically too big, bulky and expensive to even consider for early production use. What we’d like is a middle option between a development board and a custom PCB that would allow us to start production quickly at a reasonable cost and with a production-worthy vehicle.

Ultimodule is offering us just that with their new line of cost-optimized FPGA-based circuit modules. Each module is like our familiar development board, only cost- and size-optimized with a mix of connectors and interfaces that is near optimal for a wide variety of applications. These little circuit boards are versatile enough to use for development and prototyping work and inexpensive enough for early production of many end applications.

Figure 1: Ultimodule SCM 240

Ultimodule’s “system-on-module” products include an FPGA (at present, a Xilinx Spartan IIE), a 32- or 64-bit RISC CPU with OS or RTOS, I/O and communication options, control logic, and a generous helping of RAM. While that may seem pretty comprehensive, they didn’t stop there. Their platform-based design approach also includes a selection of reference designs for functions like HMI and display control, and industrial process control that can be uploaded to the FPGA and customized to meet specific needs. If your application falls within those parameters, you may not even be writing any HDL.

The module’s 65mmX40mm dimensions will fit within a lot of production form-factors, and a variety of carrier boards are available to provide power, physical connectors, and communication physical layer drivers. While Ultimodule has targeted markets such as industrial automation, building automation, security, test and measurement, automotive, and avionics, their approach is obviously extensible to serve a much broader set of applications.

Figure 2: UM-SK-104 Starter Kit for industrial automation designs

Ultimodule ships low-cost “Starter Kits” that contain all the components and reference designs needed for a variety of targeted application areas. Their software tool suite “ Device Studio for Ultimodule” is an integrated development environment which helps users to streamline programming, interactive debugging, and board management.

Figure 3: UM-SK-eHMI Starter Kit for human-machine-interface (HMI) designs

The implications of Ultimodule’s approach are exciting. Using the power and configurability of low-cost, high-performance FPGAs like Xilinx’s Spartan series, along with RISC processors on a pre-designed semi-generic embedded system, a relatively small and sparsely funded design team can develop and deploy a sophisticated embedded design in a tiny fraction of the time required for a custom engineered solution. The inclusion of pre-tested reference designs for common functions on the FPGA shortens the design time and reduces the expertise requirement even more.

The creation of an FPGA-based embedded system involves 90% re-creation of previous design and only a small component of truly original work. The pre-configured module approach eliminates much of the redundant re-design and allows the design team to spend their effort on only those parts of their system that are truly custom. For some applications, this will amount to nothing more than the application software. For many more, a slight customization of a reference FPGA design will be the only additional design work required to deploy a custom embedded hardware platform.

Ultimodule is a new company and has just launched this newest line (the SCM240), so you’ll want to check availability and specifics before you run into the back yard and start on that personal robot project. Ultimodule is also working with an increasing number of third-party suppliers to complete their offering with a range of IP and services to help get your design up and going quickly and to smooth your transition from early production to a fully cost-reduced version of your design.

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