Boeing First to Use Embedded FPGAs

Article By : George Leopold

14nm FinFET FPGAs to be manufactured by GlobalFoundries in New York

Aerospace giant Boeing is the first customer to tap embedded FPGA cores based on chip maker Flex Logix Technologies’ 14-nm design being manufactured at a U.S. fab.

Flex Logic, Mountain View, CA, said Boeing has licensed its embedded FPGA and programmable logic IP cores to be produced using GlobalFoundries’ FinFET process on its 14-nm line in Malta, NY. The embedded FPGA deal stems from a Defense Department effort that initially allowed the chips to be manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. With trade and security tensions increasing between Beijing and Washington, one key to the licensing deal was the shift to a U.S. fab. All parties involved “really wanted a U.S. manufacturer,” Flex Logix CEO Geoff Tate said in an interview. 

While it’s unclear how Boeing will implement the embedded FPGAs, the aerospace contractor is expected to use the cores to develop multiple systems. “We are working with [multiple] business units at Boeing,” Tate said. Boeing launched its new avionics manufacturing unit last year.

FPGA packages tend to be large, with applications like encryption and decryption requiring lots of power and high bandwidth I/O. Among the advantages of embedded FPGAs is the ability to integrate those performance advantages into a single chip that uses less power in military and aerospace systems where power consumption and weight are key considerations.

Old avionics

Deals with other potential users are “in the pipeline,” but Tate declined to elaborate, except to say, “The demand [for embedded FPGAs among aerospace contractors] is growing” as government contractors look to integrate more programmable logic into aerospace systems. The pace of adoption is expected to accelerate with the emergence of a U.S.-based fab.

While Boeing is the first aerospace customers for the Flex Logix cores, the chip maker said the technology also would be available for commercial applications.

Flex Logix announced a partnership in January 2017 with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop its embedded FPGA technology for use by government agencies and U.S. contractors. Under the agreement, the chips were originally produced using Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.’s 16-nm process technology. 

DARPA officials also structured the project to allow licensees or government agencies to reconfigure a chip design element called the register-transfer level (RTL). That flexibility allowed licensees to increase chip performance, reduce power consumption or shrink the size of embedded FPGAs depending on the application. 

“The ability to reconfigure RTL at any time can eliminate expensive chip spins, enable one chip to address many customers and applications, and extend the life of chips and systems,” the startup noted in announcing the DARPA partnership. 

The licensing deal between Boeing and Flex Logix also addresses the growing demand for FPGAs among aerospace contractors at a time when most programmable chips are manufactured by fabs in Taiwan. Flex Logix estimates that one-third of U.S. aerospace chip spending is devoted to FPGA technology. 

The embedded FPGA, designated EFLX4K, implements Flex Logix’ second-generation chip architecture also available at a range of process nodes from other foundries. The programmable chip is compatible with the company’s existing compiler.

Flex Logix said its embedded FPGA and logic IP core can be ported to internal CMOS processes or to a fab used by aerospace manufacturers. Along with the ability to integrate FPGAs into ASICs and systems-on-chip to reduce size and power consumption, the chip maker said its design also can be radiation-hardened for space applications using a standard cell library. 

The Flex Logix architecture specifically targets development of embedded FPGAs for integration with ASICs, SoCs and MCUs. They are programmed using either VHDL and Verilog, the four-year-old chip startup said.

— George Leopold is the former executive editor of EE Times and the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom (Purdue University Press, Updated, 2018).

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