28. April 2020, 12:47 Uhr | Iris Stroh
German semiconductor manufacturers are quite rare. Now the German company Cologne Chip is coming onto the market with FPGAs. Various American companies have tried this in the past and failed. Dr. Michael Gude, CEO of Cologne Chip, is nevertheless convinced that there are many reasons for success.
The GateMate FPGA family of Cologne Chip includes FPGAs of small and medium complexity, which the company claims can meet all the requirements of common applications. Thus, the programmable logic is to be used in low-power to high-speed applications across more or less all application areas, including industrial applications, communication, security, automotive, IoT, lighting, AI, automation, etc.
The basic structure of the FPGAs comprises the so-called Cologne Programmable Elements (CPEs), which are connected via a routing structure with the size of 132 x 164 switchboxes. In addition, there are function blocks such as JTAG and SerDes interfaces, PLLs, GPIOs and dual ported SRAM.
Cologne Chip specifies the following properties/function blocks for their GateMate FPGAs:
Dr. Michael Gude, Cologne Chip:»GateMate is not only characterized by the lowest specific costs and special technical features, the FPGAs are also manufactured in GlobalFoundries’ Fab 1 in Dresden. This also minimizes the risk of trade restrictions or high tariffs with GateMate FPGAs.«
Success in the FPGA market - is that even possible?
A look back shows: the FPGA market has not changed much in the last decades. There were/are two top dogs - Intel (due to the takeover of Altera) and Xilinx - and next to them there are a few smaller vendors with decreasing market share over the last few years. While Altera and Xilinx together accounted for nearly 60 percent of the FPGA market in 1996, Intel and Xilinx accounted for nearly 90 percent by 2015. Only the smaller players have changed: in 1996, companies such as AMD, Lucent and Actel were still active as FPGA suppliers, by 2015 it was Microsemi (through the takeover of Actel, Microsemi now belongs to Microchip) and Lattice; at the lower end, with almost no market significance, comes QuickLogic. And even today, Xilinx and Intel dominate the FPGA market, along with the companies already active in 2015, plus a few "newcomers" (some have been on the market for over ten years) such as Achronix, Efinix or Gowin Semiconductor (Chinese supplier).
Top dogs: yesterday, today and tomorrow?
When Achronix entered the market and the established players were asked to what extent the newcomer was perceived as a threat, they all calmed down. John East, President and CEO of Actel (later acquired by Microsemi), said on behalf of the industry: »The challenges for a new company entering the highly competitive FPGA environment are much more complex than just software tools. Most venture capital companies are impatient to see a return on their investment and the road to success is long and expensive in this market. It often happens that the financial resources are already used up before a new company has even gone through its own silicon and software design cycles and the development cycles of the customers are also completed. This is the reason why there has not been one successful startup in FPGAs since Actel, which was founded in the mid-80s.«
Achronix shows that East was not right. In 2017, the company was able to achieve revenue growth of 700 percent and sales of more than 100 million dollars. For Achronix certainly a considerable success, but that doesn't change the overall picture, because Xilinx achieved almost 2.5 billion dollars at that time and Intel PSG (Programmable Solutions Group, i.e. Altera) came in at around 1.8 billion dollars.
Why does the German company Cologne Chip believe it will succeed in this market? Gude: »We have 25 years of experience in the global chip business. We have made a good name for ourselves worldwide through better technology, very attractive prices, fast chip availability and excellent support. Thanks to the small size of the company, a highly motivated team and our love of thinking things through to the end, we have also been able to succeed against international corporations".
Cologne Chip is used to compete with the big ones. Gude continues: »Cologne Chip started with ISDN chips. We came up with the first single-chip solution for ISDN PC cards; both for ISA and PCI. We also provided the first single-chip solution for ISDN on USB. This means that right from the start, i.e. since around 1995, we have been a technological leader and have been able to stand up even against major competitors such as Siemens, Infineon, Lantiq and Intel.«
Others also believe in the success of Cologne Chip. This is shown by the fact that the company was one of the companies that received the first subsidies from the BMWi (Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology in Germany) within the framework of the »IPCEI Mikroelektronik« (IPCEI: Important Project of Common European Interest) program at the end of 2019. Within the framework of the IPCEI, the German government is investing a total of 1 billion euros in research and development of innovative microelectronic applications.