Abhinay Patil (Staff FAE, Analog Devices India)

Brief about Digital Signal Processing (DSP) basic architecture.

For those familiar with a general idea of Microcontrollers(MCUs), it is easier to appreciate the concept of Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) through their differences rather than similarities. MCUs are event/IO/control centric devices, while DSPs are more data and computation centric. A measure of a DSP’s performance is how quickly and efficiently it can perform computations (e.g. filter, transform) on a given dataset. Some of the architectural innovations used to achieve this are deep pipelining, instruction parallelization, specialized computational units, fast memory access paths and bus architectures. Many of these techniques are used in ADI’s DSP architectures such as SHARC (Super Harvard Architecture) and Blackfin (Micro Signal Architecture). Another defining aspect of a DSP’s architecture is the data format it can handle natively. Based on that, you would classify a DSP as a 16/32-bit, fixed/floating point processor. This influences the kind of applications where it is used. For example, video data is 8-bit with relatively low dynamic range and hence a 16-bit fixed point DSP like Blackfin would be a good fit. On the other hand, high fidelity audio or RADAR signals have a high dynamic range and would need a 32-bit floating DSP like SHARC to process them.

Considering the broad customer base of Analog Devices, how has the DSP offerings evolved in the last decade? What are the key and modern applications?

ADI has a long history of DSP processors based on our proprietary cores like ADSP-218x/219x, Blackfin, SHARC, TigerSHARC and SigmaDSP. Each of them has been successful in a certain market segment. For example, Blackfin has been targeted for low power video processing applications like video surveillance. In fact, we now offer a complete hardware+software solution called BLIP (Blackfin Low-Power Imaging Platform) for that application. SHARC, on the other hand has been hugely successful in high end audio processing applications such as home theaters. Here again, we offer fully certified software algorithms (e.g. Dolby Atmos) which enable our customers bring world class products to the market in a short time. In a nutshell, I would say that we are no longer purely a DSP IC supplier, but are increasingly taking on the role of a solution provider, which includes the chip, system software and algorithms. That’s one aspect of our evolution as a DSP supplier.

Over the past decade, the line between DSP and GP processors has blurred. We see increased adoption of ARM architecture based processors over proprietary DSP cores. This is in part due to the ever-improving DSP capabilities of the new ARM cores, and also due to the sheer expanse of the ARM ecosystem, whether it involves tools, RTOS, application software and so on. We have ourselves embraced ARM architectures wholeheartedly and have released many families of processors which use ARM as the principal core, or a combination of ARM core with one of our proprietary high performance DSP cores like SHARC. We also include Hardware Accelerators for certain application specific DSPs, which gives a big boost in performance of the processor without adding significantly to the cost or power consumption. It’s a simple matter of “horses for courses”.

Another axis along which evolution has taken place is on the mixed signal integration wherein we are able to package our high performance analog front ends into DSPs. This is evident in our CM40x series of Cortex-M4 based mixed signal processors for motor/power control applications, and also in our SigmaDSP family of integrated audio processors.

How ADI is helping designers from concept to development of products?
ADI has always prided itself in being an engineer friendly company. This includes our own engineers as well as the engineers at our customer end. ADI is as well known for its cutting technology as it is for the world class collateral and application support it offers, which engineers love. In addition to the direct support provided by our FAE resources, we now have a well-established online support forum called Engineer Zone. An interesting fact I would like to share is that India contributes to among the highest number of hits we get on the Engineer zone portal globally.Equipment manufacturers have changed the way they are looking at product development. Gone are the days where engineers could spend time evaluating every single component and designing their systems from the ground up. In today’s fast paced and competitive world, that luxury simply doesn’t exist. Also, companies would now rather focus on creating product differentiation on the application level and have early market advantage, than spend too much time designing the base hardware and software. This has led to a shift in the roles and responsibilities of a product designer over a period of time. Consequently, semiconductor suppliers like ourselves are taking on a bigger role beyond offering just the chips. Here are a few examples of how we add value to a product design cycle.We now offer fully tested susbsystem level circuits under our CFTL (Circuits From The Lab) program, which enables the engineers to focus on building the whole system. We also offer a whole lot of system software including drivers, algorithms etc.. which designers can simply build upon. On the tools front, SigmaStudio is our award winning graphical software development tool for our SHARC and SigmaDSP processors, which allows designers to quickly put their ideas into action without having to write a single line of code. With the acquisition of LTC, we now have LTSpice in our tools arsenal, which is the most popular analog circuit simulation tool in the industry and needs no introduction.

Why should the designers go for digital signal processing?
Almost everything we see, feel and hear around us today uses Digital Signal Processing. Whether it’s mobile phones or medical devices or audio/video equipment, DSP is an indispensable component in all of For a designer, DSP has gone past being an enabling technology and is now the core platform on which everything is built.Having said that, one cannot ignore the fact that the real world continues to be analog and there’s no substitute for the analog and mixed signal components like amplifiers and data converters which bridge the gap between the analog and digital worlds. ADI continues to be the world leader in these technology areas, a position which has been further bolstered by our recent acquisition of LTC.

What are the driving factors in adoption of this technology?
Frankly, that question has long been answered. It’s no longer a choice not to use Digital Signal Processing technology. And the reasons are pretty obvious – there are things which DSP enables which are simply not possible in the analog domain. The complex signal processing needs in today’s world, whether it’s ultra high fidelity audio/video or communications technology can only be met by DSPs. Operations like intricate filtering or complex transformations which these applications demand are only possible in the computationally intensive realm of DSP. Another aspect to this is the amount of customization flexibility and future proofing DSPs enable through the ability to reprogram things to suit the needs of the market. A simple but effective example of this would be the ability to upgrade your portable media player software to support the playback of the newest video format available on the market.

How is India positioned in terms of engineering capabilities and design innovations?
India is home to some of the finest engineering colleges in the world and an incredibly large number of engineers graduate out of colleges here every year. So, when it comes to abundance of engineering talent, India is second to none.It has already established itself as the software development hub of the world and is now making a mark in hardware development as well. There’s probably no global technology company in the world that doesn’t have a design footprint in India. I must add that the nature of the work has gone through a gradual arc as the design teams scaled up in terms of skills and experience. Slowly but surely, these design teams have reached a point where they have complete ownership of designs from concept to production. That’s true for equipment manufacturers as well as chip makers like ADI. A real and indisputable proof of the R&D innovation capabilities of India would be the increasing number of patents being filed by engineers in India.

Is ADI involved in building the system design skill set in budding engineers? What are the initiatives taken in that direction?
ADI has always been a step ahead in nurturing young talent. We have long standing associations with prestigious universities like MIT and many others across the globe. In India, we have been associated closely with IIT, Madras where we have been running a DSP learning center to impart practical DSP design knowledge to engineers. Another way we are making an impact among the young engineering community is through our Anveshan Design Fellowship program, which was started 7 years ago with the aim of nurturing system design knowledge among university students. Under this program, budding engineers are mentored by senior engineers from ADI which will help them improve their skillset and knowledge. For the recently concluded Anveshan 2016-17, which had IoT as the central theme, we received close to 500 registrations from all over India. The 12 shortlisted projects were mentored by the ADI engineers to help them solve the critical problem, enhance their project design, skill set and turn their idea into reality.

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