Mr Kraus, how is business; can you deliver enough?
Robert Kraus: We are in the pleasant situation that we can currently meet our delivery obligations and commitments in full.
Business is good and we are very satisfied because our two mainstays – APIX and ISELED – are both developing very well. After last year‘s slump (the OEMs did not build any cars for weeks due to Covid) we have a sporty growth plan for 2021 and are already ahead of schedule in the first quarter of 2021. We have to revise our forecast to the fabs, which we submitted last year, upwards again – and at a time when the foundries actually no longer have any capacity. That is a real challenge.
Let‘s start with APIX, where the first products hit the road in 2008, at BMW. After APIX2 in 2012, the third generation APIX3, now with 12 Gbps, is now on the market; we are currently sampling a Rev 2 of this. APIX3 is no longer a classic chip but a highly complex SoC (System on Chip) with powerful video interfaces such as DisplayPort with HDCP 2.3, DSC, HDR support and an integrated microcontroller to make this high functionality possible at all. While in 2008 a separate head unit was still required for each of the two displays and the head-up display in the dashboard, we are working with APIX3 on architectures that will roll off the OEM‘s production line in 2025/2026, where the head unit will then control up to six displays in the dashboard alone. Nowadays, an end customer often is more impressed by the centimetre specifications for the screen size than by the number of cylinders.
To date, APIX is in use in 60 model series at 10 OEMs, and together with the products of our licensees – first and foremost Socionext, but also Toshiba, Analog Devices and Cypress – we now have over 150 million APIX nodes, primarily in the vehicles of European manufacturers. Starting with APIX2 and especially with APIX3, we are now more and more also on the platforms of large Chinese OEMs. Together with Socionext, back then still Fujitsu Semiconductor and our first APIX licensee in September 2007, we have just announced the licensing of APIX3 for their fourth generation graphics display controller, the Indigo 4; this has been a successful partnership for 14 years.
And since we are still making new design-ins also with APIX2 – even after 10 years in the market – we will continue the APIX story well into the next decade. Now – with APIX3 and a literal inflation of in-car displays – with ever-increasing numbers.
What about APIX4?
Robert Kraus: resolution displays in the future: After Full HD, 4k (with HDR, High Dynamic Range), there are even already plans to use 8k displays in cars.
We are therefore already thinking specifically about an APIX4 with native 24 Gbps. And here there are several ways of realising it, such as brute force with a lot of computing power, expensive process nodes and other disadvantages. We have almost 30 years of experience in developing Gigabit SerDes chips and are pursuing a different approach here – the best of both worlds, so to speak.
What is happening with Iseled, Inova‘s second mainstay?
Robert Kraus: Iseled has developed tremendous momentum. We saw this at the third Iseled conference in September 2020, which we held as a hybrid workshop because of the coronavirus pandemic. Of the total of 400 participants worldwide, 70 people were able to be physically present, and we had an excellent response. Which other hybrid or purely virtual technical conference last year had so many participants? The fourth Iseled conference is scheduled to take place in Munich on 19 October 2021.
What‘s special about Iseled?
Robert Kraus: Among other things, Iseled eliminates the binning problem with LEDs and enables smart digital control of what is actually an analogue LED component. Iseled reduces system costs because the RGB LEDs and a driver-controller IC are installed together in a very small SiP, System in Package. The smart mini-LED module is already calibrated during the production of the SiP and can then be operated like a digital component. The LEDs – theoretically thousands can be cascaded – are controlled via a lean protocol with a data rate of 2 Mbps, since only the address, colour and brightness value have to be transmitted. This is why Iseled is also known as a “Digital LED”.
What is the significance of the Iseled Alliance?
Robert Kraus: Developing a highly innovative technology is one thing, but successfully introducing it to the market as a complete newcomer in the automotive lighting market with all the established lighting players is quite another.
So, it‘s a similar situation to APIX, when it was launched we had just 15 employees and were a complete nobody in the automotive segment. But even then we had realised that for more sophisticated products, customers do not need a formal IEEE standard, but components that are coordinated with each other and work together smoothly. This idea of creating an ecosystem was thus already an essential key to success with APIX. That is why we have consistently followed this path with Iseled from the very beginning.
The Iseled Alliance is an open industry consortium whose members pursue a common goal: the development of a comprehensive, fully coordinated ecosystem around Iseled. In addition to LED manufacturers, suppliers of microcontrollers are also represented there, as are the large automotive tier 1s in the lighting sector, but also smaller, highly innovative development companies and measuring device manufacturers.
When it was founded in autumn 2016, just five companies laid the foundation for the Iseled Alliance. It has now grown to 38 members. Alps Alpine, Grammer, the Chinese LED manufacturer Harvatek, Osram-Continental and the supplier Yanfeng, which is very important for the Chinese market, have just been added. This already covers the entire value chain in the automotive lighting sector. And we already have new enquiries.
Which vehicles will be launched with Iseled technology?
Robert Kraus: Robert Kraus: In the summer of 2020, the Chinese manufacturer FAW was the first OEM in the world to install Iseled as standard in a vehicle – in the premium model Hongqi H9. In the meantime, there have been other attempts that we as a tier 3 supplier are not all familiar with; in Asia in particular, the market is developing very dynamically. This means that we currently have the challenge that the waferlots we actually order are far above the forecasts, some of which are only a few weeks old but already obsolete. As it looks, we will already be in the double-digit millions with the chips sold in this first year – even for the first applications outside the automotive segment, for example in the area of digital signage. The reassuring thing is that – apart from the current chip shortage – we have concrete ideas with our long-standing foundry partner on how we can meet this demand, because from 2023 onwards the quantities will increase enormously, and from 2025 onwards ILaS will also be added. And our LED manufacturers are also investing heavily in new fabs; from 2024, a capacity in the billion range is already expected to be achieved.
I do have the impression that the major OEMs – Tesla aside – are very proactive in addressing the subject of interior lighting effects. Not only premium OEMs are now incorporating 40% more light-emitting elements than in the previous generation of their vehicles. Because customers want to have a lighting experience in the car, the trend is moving away from the classic on/off to the transition with dynamic effects. This is where it gets exciting for us, because the traditional architectures, for example with the LIN bus, are reaching their limits with the ever-increasing number of LEDs and the simultaneous dynamisation of light. Today, lighting control is often simply attached to the existing onboard electronics, but this is no way to support the power and all the possibilities of the new technology. To ensure that it is nevertheless efficient and cost-effective, a new lighting architecture is needed.
What does “a new lighting architecture“ really mean? Which Features does it have to provide?
Robert Kraus: It is about making the lighting world of tomorrow possible in the car: hundreds of LEDs, and the whole thing dynamic or even functional. Traditional lighting architectures with the LIN or CAN bus cannot achieve this due to their limitations in terms of scalability and the maximum number of clients, but this is not what they were designed for.
This is where our ILaS comes into play, the Iseled Light and Sensor Network: a new fieldbus in the vehicle which, as the name suggests, can integrate sensors and actuators into the network in addition to the Iseled light elements – up to 4097 of them.
What does it mean for the LIN bus that ILaS is taking its place in the car?
Robert Kraus: Of course, there will be no technological leap to an exclusively ILaS/Iseled architecture in vehicles, because such disruption rarely occurs in the car. Even if the opposite is sometimes claimed, neither does the OEM have to choose either/or here; there will be a coexistence of buses for some time. For example, the first Iseled systems are still being docked to the current lighting systems via LIN hubs; the first products are already available here. However, a large semiconductor manufacturer is already working on the big solution, the direct connection of the IlaS bus to the Ethernet on-board network via Ethernet-to-ILaS bridge chip. Over time, Iseled/ILaS will establish itself on a broad front and then also in the high-volume models, we are quite sure of that.
In any case, we are working flat out on our first ILaS bus node module, which we will sample in the middle of the year. The concept for Iseled 2.0 with additional features requested by many customers is also ready; we want to have the first samples in Q4/21. The decisive factor for the rapid spread of Iseled/IlaS will be that there will soon be a broad portfolio of attractive products, which we as Inova cannot achieve on our own. Neither we nor the OEMs want that. This is exactly why we have a number of semiconductor manufacturers in the ranks of the Iseled Alliance who are already working hard on corresponding products: just look at the large portfolio of controller devices from Microchip and NXP alone, which already support the Iseled protocol today.
With APIX, we practically had a blueprint for how important ecosystems are for new technologies, and with Iseled we have consistently followed this path from the beginning.
As a small German fabless semiconductor manufacturer, how do you manage to break into new designs?
Robert Kraus: In the beginning, it was certainly an immense leap of faith from our first customer, BMW, that they, as a premium OEM, used our APIX – and then immediately in their flagship, the BMW 7 Series (F01). That was in November 2008. But with APIX we had a technically brilliant solution right from the start and a great team that has enjoyed the technology over the years and to this day and is still very innovative even after 20 years. Of course, there have been ups and downs, but over time we have built what is now called credibility – a small, highly innovative semiconductor manufacturer that „can do automotive“ – in terms of quality but also in terms of service and reliability. This is also expressed in facts and figures: only recently a major US supplier recognised us again as an A-supplier, a few weeks earlier a major Japanese tier 1 supplier.
The fact that we are really at the forefront of technology is shown, among other things, by our numerous awards; the PC magazine Chip, for example, recently acknowledged us again as “Digital Innovator 2021”.
How do you gain confidence that OEMs won't have their assembly lines at a standstill because of Inova?
Robert Kraus: We are already thinking about having a corresponding backup and second-source strategy when the number of units ramps up to really large volumes. Even back then, in 2005, when APIX was conceived, it was a clear requirement to digitise the actually traditional analogue function, the Gbps physical layer, as much as possible, so that the product could not only be manufactured in a specific fab and possibly also with an adapted process. We have succeeded in this, and the fact that today APIX chips are manufactured by several manufacturers, in different baseline technology nodes and in foundries all over the world is certainly part of the high acceptance and success of APIX.
And with Iseled and ILaS, where the quantities will be of a completely different order of magnitude, the topic of availability and safeguarding is already at the top of our priorities today.
What are Inova Semiconductors‘ next plans?
Robert Kraus: The next logical step is to bring APIX and light together by using the broad APIX data highway to transmit not only display but also light information together. In some cases, this could also replace entire control units. The development in the vehicle is moving towards central, very high-performance domain architectures anyway – Tesla has led the way. There are many interesting applications, of which the dynamic backlight is only the beginning. Because the topic of display & light is increasingly becoming hype, we are really extremely busy at the moment with APIX, Iseled and ILaS. Now we just have to show customers what this new world of visualisation can look like; everything already works fine in our laboratory.