Stronger Affiliations Lead to Greater Ingenuity

Author : Mike Green - Editor, EPDT

26 October 2023

Martin Cotter ADI President for EMEA
Martin Cotter ADI President for EMEA

Along with various other members of the European electronics editorial fraternity (which is the more polite version of what we are generally referred to), I recently got invited by Analog Devices Inc. (ADI) to visit its site in Limerick, central Ireland. As well as being the location of one of the multinational semiconductor company’s main fabrication facilities, this is also home to its recently established large-scale research hub - ADI Catalyst.

Back in the past, when I was still a young journalist, ADI (similarly to Linear Technology and Maxim Integrated, which it has since acquired) would have tended to follow a strategy of releasing a multitude of analogue/mixed signal products and then leaving it to the customers themselves to decide which ones seemed to best fit their specific needs. As the company has evolved, its approach has radically changed. With its expertise now encompassing the diverse domains of analogue, digital, software and AI algorithms, plus customers needing more fully formed solutions (not just the component parts), the value of closer cooperation has becoming increasingly apparent. 

This is the motivation behind ADI Catalyst. Covering 100,000 square feet, it serves as a collaborative workspace in which the company’s staff can engage with their counterparts from various customers’ operations in order that mutually beneficial outcomes can be derived. The first undertaking of this kind made by ADI anywhere in the world, it has called for a total financial outlay exceeding Euro 100 million. Alongside this, and in response to the EU Chips Act, ADI plans to have trebled the capacity of its Limerick fab by the end of 2025. 

The Limerick campus
The Limerick campus

An array of test beds
The activities being undertaken at ADI Catalyst are focused on several principal areas where the company’s management see large potential for growth. Among them are Industry 4.0/robotics, consumer electronics (particularly wearables, hearables and extended reality equipment), vehicle electrification, automotive infotainment/connectivity, digital health, smart buildings and next generation wireless communication. In just a few months, 58 different partners have participated in projects at the location. These go all the way from small short-term engagements lasting a couple of weeks, right through to far more prolonged ventures, where the companies involved have staff based on the campus for extended periods. During our visit, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to speak with the main ADI instigators of each of these areas, as well as some of the customers they are collaborating with. 

Transforming the communications landscape
One of the investments that is sure to prove of worthwhile to a large proportion of the projects being undertaken at the site is the setting up of a 5G private network, based on compatible units from several vendors in the flourishing Open RAN ecosystem. Not only can this be instrumental in conducting performance and interoperability testing, but it may also be used for acquiring data from IIoT nodes or controlling robot arms and automated guides vehicles (AGVs). A major ally in the Open RAN analysis/investigations being carried out here is Vodafone - with the mobile network operator working in conjunction with ADI engineers on how to curb the power consumption of the radio access element of networks as the data volumes being dealt with ramp-up acutely.       

Visitors to the ADI Catalyst collaboration hub
Visitors to the ADI Catalyst collaboration hub

Industrial innovation
Among the cooperative partners when it comes to industrial automation is high-profile pharmaceutical/healthcare brand Johnson & Johnson. One of the issues that the 2 companies are working on is making automated manufacturing lines more flexible - so that they can cope with high product mix requirements and it is more straightforward to switch between different SKUs. This has led to the development of a game-changing modular approach, where it is quick, simple and cost-effective to reconfigure the production set-up. Other parts of the industrial sphere where ADI research resources are being focussed include reducing the energy being consumed by factories’ legacy motor drives, tightening latency in communication infrastructure to make systems more responsive in time-critical situations, safer interaction between cobots and their human coworkers, plus the formation of highly detailed digital twins.    

Automotive aspects 
In terms of electric vehicle (EV) powertrains, ADI is closely involved with Munich Electrification’s efforts to maximise battery management system (BMS) effectiveness. One of the big problems for EVs, as most of us will probably already be aware, is the weight of their wire harnessing has a serious detrimental effect on the range they can cover between recharges. It also takes up a considerable amount of space and adds significantly to the overall cost. This is why the 2 companies have been working together on an alternative BMS arrangement - where data on current, voltage and temperature is transmitted securely across a proprietary nearfield wireless protocol on a continuous basis. In addition to the cost and space savings realised, there is the advantage that the constituent cell modules in a battery pack can all be connected up in a fraction of the time. There is considerable potential for this technology to be utilised outside of the automotive sector, with it being applicable in an energy storage system (ESS) context too.   
 
Another automotive challenge being tackled is improving the in-cabin experience. In the coming years, as vehicles gain heightened autonomy, their driving performance (handling, acceleration, etc.) will clearly become less important selling points. Instead, differentiation will be through enhanced features and functionality relating to comfort, entertainment and personalisation. Use of multi-drop SPE will bring Ethernet connectivity right to the edge of in-vehicle networking implementations. This will be pivotal in the streamlining of cabling infrastructure (and enabling the desired weight, cost and space savings already outlined), as well as facilitating the move away from domain-based to more advanced zonal-based architectures. Time-sensitive networking (TNS) technology will mean that multimedia content is all perfectly synchronised, thereby eliminating possible user frustration. Furthermore, the advent of software defined vehicle (SDV) technology is imminent. Via this, upgrades can be actioned over the course of an automobile’s entire lifespan, with new functions thus being added periodically - and ADI fully appreciates that it has a valuable role to play, through its RF transceivers and other innovations.     

Wireless connection of EV battery cells
Wireless connection of EV battery cells

Redefining the consumer space 
The consumer section of ADI Catalyst sees the company’s engineers involved in all manner of enthralling development work. This covers everything from development of algorithms for voice control and noise cancellation, through to next generation HMIs, ToF-based gesture recognition, hearing augmentation, HDMI video connectivity, faster charging capabilities for wearable equipment and even direct neural interfacing. A fairly longstanding partner here is producer of professional-grade extended reality headsets Varjo. As well as being involved in facets like video signal processing and the signal chain for ToF sensing, ADI is also helping the Finnish firm to expand that scope of applications it can attend to (with opportunities emerging in medicine, education/training, remote servicing of expensive items of equipment, immersive exhibition attractions, etc. Another current collaborator is Austria Audio, on which a dedicated team have been supporting the company in relation to its hearable models - to optimise the acoustic design and create adaptive algorithms for active noise cancelling.

Building a foundations for the future    
ADI already has over 1,000 R&D engineers situated in Ireland, and is the country’s 2nd most prolific patent producer. With this in mind, nurturing engineering talent is undoubtedly a further key objective for the company’s Limerick operation. To that end, it has joined forces with several of the most respected Irish universities to support the student intake. In some cases, the company (alongside the likes of Intel) is helping to define the structure of certain courses to make them better aligned with what the semiconductor industry needs. In addition, it has founded (and also provided the necessary financial backing) for a degree course on Immersive Software Engineering at the University of Limerick. As part of this course, students get to spend time on placements at the ADI Catalyst facility.

A Varjo extended reality headset in action
A Varjo extended reality headset in action


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