Field-programmable gate arrays can speed system upgrades and technology insertion

Even as overall defense spending continues to decrease, it is expected that the electronic content will continue to grow, fueled by the need for "smarter" weapons and defense systems. This growing use of electronics has caused system designers to spend development money more wisely than before, consider development time and time-to-market as critical in today`s fight for market survival, get access to the latest technologies as a matter of paramount importance, and select a supplier who is commi

Apr 1st, 1997

By Howard Bogrow Xilinx Inc.

Even as overall defense spending continues to decrease, it is expected that the electronic content will continue to grow, fueled by the need for "smarter" weapons and defense systems. This growing use of electronics has caused system designers to spend development money more wisely than before, consider development time and time-to-market as critical in today`s fight for market survival, get access to the latest technologies as a matter of paramount importance, and select a supplier who is committed to serving the market for the long term. Leading the way with solutions to these most crucial design issues in this changing environment has been Xilinx Inc. of San Jose, Calif., and the company`s programmable logic products.

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) solve many of the problems facing The defense electronics industry, and have become the technology of choice for many system designers. FPGAs have been successfully designed into hundreds of military and aerospace applications such as electronic warfare, missile guidance, radar, sonar, communications, and avionics systems. The flexibility afforded by FPGAs take most of the risk and guess work out of system design. Since FPGAs are off-the-shelf products, designers no longer have to pay to develop custom logic that is time consuming to produce, may not function as intended, and may require re-spins. Xilinx FPGAs with densities to 62,000 gates make custom logic an even less attractive alternative.

FPGAs are particularly useful for system upgrades. As scarce funding for new programs causes military systems designers to look at ways to upgrade and rejuvenate existing systems, FPGAs enable engineers to upgrade devices quickly by inserting new technology.

The advent of logic cores in Xilinx high-reliability FPGAs addresses an additional issue for system designers. Many of the logic cores being integrated into the FPGAs are not available as military-grade components from many suppliers. With Xilinx, however, the designer has the choice of mil-spec FPGAs with the required logic core function available.

Defense electronics system designers must choose a supplier and technology that will be around for the long term. While many suppliers are abandoning the high-reliability market, Xilinx has in fact strengthened its commitment. A recent demonstration of this is the receipt of transitional Defense Department Qualified Manufacturers List (QML) certification to MIL-PRF-38535 from the Defense Supply Center Columbus (DSCC) in Columbus, Ohio. Xilinx has been a supplier of military-grade FPGAs since 1988 via the DSCC Standard Microcircuit Drawing program, and recognizes the importance of being a QML supplier.

The principles of quality assurance have become core values at Xilinx. Many of these quality principles are applicable to the commercial market. QML complements and even reinforces ISO-9000, another quality system.

Since the QML program is the combination of a quality and manufacturing system that works for military and commercial products, it is called a dual-use system. Developed in 1988 at the direction of the Defense Science Board, it employs best commercial practices for manufacturing, assembly, screening, and test flows. The QML basically validates that the manufacturer is well managed, technically sound, and needs a minimum of government supervision. A QML supplier has flexibility to control the way its technicians qualify, manufacture, and test military products.

During this turbulent time in the defense industry, as so many other manufacturers have chosen to exit the high-rel market, what would motivate a supplier to become QML certified now? Xilinx believes that the benefits to the company and its customers are significant.

The introduction of new military/high-rel products will be much more rapid than they were under pre-QML practices. Historically there have been substantial time lags between the release of new commercial products and military versions due to the stringent and time-consuming characterization and qualification requirements of Mil-Std-883. Under the QML program, this time lag will be greatly reduced or even eliminated.

The QML program affords the manufacturer the opportunity to optimize screening and testing mandated by Mil-Std-883. Since QML qualifies processes and materials rather than individual products or production lots, this allows the manufacturer to be more efficient and cost-effective. This in turn provides more incentive to remain as a supplier to the market.

Xilinx is continually looking for ways to capitalize on its vast strength as a high- volume commercial supplier, and apply these capabilities to the high-rel market. Since the QML program is based on best commercial practices, the opportunity exists to explore using commercial packaging such as plastic for high-rel applications.

High-rel system designers will continue to face difficult design issues over the next several years. They must prepare for the trend towards reduced supply voltages; 5 volts has been the standard for a long time, but the imminent migration to lower voltages will occur rapidly. They must decide how to incorporate more functionality and system features into fewer components. Designers will need to address the issue of using mil-spec components versus non-mil-spec, and determine which applications are suitable for each. There will be no lack of challenges ahead for the defense engineer.

FPGA technology will play an important role in helping to address these challenges. As the complexion of the industry continues to change, the flexibility and adaptability of FPGAs will serve as valuable allies to system designers.

Howard Bogrow is marketing manager, high reliability/military, at Xilinx Inc. in San Jose, Calif., where he is responsible for all product marketing and business management. He held previous positions at Intel in memory components, Integrated Design Technology in SRAMs, S-MOS Systems and Toshiba America in ASICs. He holds a BSEE degree from Arizona State University and an MBA degree from the University of Phoenix.

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