Acquisition promises an increased chip offering
In April 2016, Microchip completed the acquisition of Atmel Corporation. At electronica, Electronic Specifier Editor Joe Bush caught up with Lucio Di Jasio, Microchip’s European Business Development Manager, to get an update on what the company has been doing since.
As part of the Atmel acquisition, plans were announced to rapidly integrate the company’s portfolio into Microchip, grow its sales, improve its gross margin percentage, bring down operating expenses and improve profitability. However, the announcement did herald a number of concerns amongst Atmel customers, and one of the key messages that Microchip wanted to convey at the electronica exhibition was that it has made good on its promises – offering proof in the launch of a series of AVR MCUs.
“It’s been less than six months since the acquisition and we already have the first new product to show customers - the 8-bit tiny817 series,” said Di Jasio. “Following the Atmel acquisition, we promised we would take good care of the AVR product line and here’s the proof that we have. So it’s the first in a series of modern 8-bit AVR MCUs which emphasises Microchip’s commitment to nurturing the AVR brand. It’s been designed by the original AVR design team using original AVR IP for Microchip.”
The key part of the Microchip message at electronica was that PIC and AVR will continue to be supported and will receive equal status within the company.
Microchip and Atmel have been running side by side for around 20-25 years in the same industry and have been catering for the same types of customers. However, as Di Jasio explained, the acquisition has still been full of surprises for Microchip.
“We thought we knew all these customers, but after talking to the AVR teams, and with integration between the two companies, it has been something of an eye-opener as we’re meeting with customers who we hadn’t heard of before – it’s been quite humbling. So, the acquisition is expanding our horizons and extending our capabilities as a whole.”
Di Jasio went on to stress that Microchip’s ultimate goal is to make customers happy, and therefore it was important to minimise disruption after the acquisition and not to force customers to use different products or to impose anything on the market.
He added: “We believe in, and are committed to, 8-bit and we know that if we keep feeding this market with a constant flow of innovation and ideas, we will keep seeing increasing revenue, and year after year we show that if we focus on something our customers reward us.
“We know the strengths of the 8-bit - which is low power - but low power without having to jump through hoops to get it. You get robustness easily and simply and that’s something we value a lot and which are the fundamentals of the 8-bit product.”
The 8-bit tiny817 is the first new generation AVR and ‘tiny’ in the Atmel language really means low pin count which is 28 or less pins, and less than 32kB of Flash. Microchip also wanted to refresh the AVR as the company felt it had been neglected in the past, as Atmel was spending so much R&D on 32-bit - and AVR users noticed this.
“We’re going to put a lot more emphasis on AVR than there has been and give it more attention than it’s received over the last couple of years – with three times the number of design teams working on it,” said Di Jasio.
Passing on knowledge
Of course Atmel’s original AVR design team had their own traditions, IP and methodologies, and Microchip saw many good things in the AVR product line that it wanted to use and emphasise. One of these is the role of the core independent peripherals and the fact that they are smart enough to be able to talk to each other directly without having to necessarily wake-up the processor.
Di Jasio explained: “We have this ‘Galilean’ vision of the core not being at the centre of the universe - it’s actually the peripherals and the core just happens to be there to help, communicate and to add intelligence to the system - it doesn’t have to be involved in every single interaction which can result in a bottleneck in the system.
“We’ve been refining this idea on the PIC side for the last few years, so it’s been a very hot topic for us. In the AVR world the seeds of this idea exist already but you had to look at the XMEGA AVR offering which is at the very top end. There you could find something called the ‘Event System’ which allows some of the peripherals to send signals directly to others by passing the core. This is exactly what we needed as it allowed us to create the co-dependence that is so dear to us in the PIC world. So we decided to take this XMEGA idea and put it into the tiny 817.”
Other integrated features include: a core-independent Peripheral Touch Controller (PTC); custom programmable logic blocks; self-programming for firmware upgrades; non-volatile data storage; 20MHz internal oscillator; high-speed serial communication with USART; operating voltages ranging from 1.8-5.5V; 10-bit ADC with internal voltage references; and sleep currents at less than 100nA in power-down mode with SRAM retention.
Rapid development is key in today’s market – to actually get from concept to working prototype (and minimum viable product (MVP)), as soon as possible – something you can test in the market and then refine rapidly – the mantra of all start-ups.
The 8-bit tinyAVR range are really general purpose chips. They were not designed for a specific application and are the most general chip produced by Microchip. They go in all appliances (big and small), are qualified to go in the automotive sector and in every application that uses touch, which is to say that they can go in nearly every application.
Di Jasio continued: “The integration is progressing very rapidly. This is acquisition number 17 for us, so by now we know how it’s done. The design teams, the application teams and the architecture teams have all been integrated.
“The teams are being integrated very nicely. We’ve done a lot of travelling between Munich and Norway (Atmel’s HQ), and to do what we’ve done in six months is quite an achievement considering the under investment before. So AVR users will see quite a dramatic improvement in support and as we progress that will only improve. So all customers now have a choice between PIC or AVR. We’re not deleting anything, therefore the customers are the real winners as they can now look at what they’re used to, what features and functionalities they want, etc.
“Designers want faith that their product will stay around, and we are delivering that faith with what we’ve shown. We are now offering 8-, 16-, 32-bit PIC, AVR, dsPIC, MIPS, ARM, Cortex, etc. We have a full portfolio of analogue and EPROM and we are therefore one of the few semiconductor companies offering this breadth of product. We’re not trying to tie anyone down to the PIC or AVR for example - we’re making it easier for designers and are reducing their BOM.
“Of course when the acquisition was announced, you get the impression from AVR users that there was a sense of apprehension and of wondering what we were going to do to their product. And of course words can only reassure someone so much – but at the show we were able to show them the silicon. We have the evidence. AVR customers used to get a new board every couple of years – we’ve given them one within six months, and they will be more, so users have been impressed.”