Strategic Partnerships: A Key to Future Success

by Russell Nieves, Vice President of Sales Acromag, Inc.

In today’s world, defending freedom has taken on an entirely new look. Military technology continues to accelerate at a very rapid pace, making it difficult for our forces to maintain an edge. Companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon and Boeing are now partnering to create solutions for our military’s needs. 

In the field of radar detection and monitoring, missile guidance, UAV / UAS development and a vast array of mobile communications technologies are required to keep a battalion of troops communicating securely on the battlefield. Hence, companies are teaming up to provide the optimum solution to our military’s needs.

Jets technology

Due to this continual advancement in technology, we see the ever-increasing costs to produce these specialized, high-speed thoroughbred systems.  Twenty-year-old VMEbus crates no longer provide the high-speed data throughput that’s available on 3U and now 6U VPX systems. High-speed, vision-based sensors send more images back than many storage devices can hold after short periods of test flight recording! FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) and I/O products are evolving almost annually to keep up with the algorithmic requirements; thus making instantaneous decisions based on that accumulated data.

Success in this highly competitive market is very challenging.

As head of sales for a small technology-based company, I found the difficulty in plotting a course for success in this highly competitive market very challenging. Acromag has been in business for over 60 years. Expanding globally with a solid sales channel, we’ve evolved into a leader in general purpose I/O products. Our focus is primarily on the MIL-AERO and Defense industry. The solutions that are developed in that market are based on four basic elements (as we see them) that encompass the heart of these technical solutions: 

  1. CPUs
  2. SFF Box Solutions (Small Form Factor)
  3. Highly specialized board-level FPGA solutions (i.e. software radio, high-speed graphics, high-speed analog I/O, MIL-STD 1553)
  4. General-purpose analog and digital I/O modules

Each one of these four elements has many companies dedicated solely to the development and support of a family of products that fit various requirements within their respective element. This requires millions of dollars annually to keep up with the needs requested by the companies mentioned in my opening statement. There are a few companies that have been successful at all four (and a few that have tried and lost). For the most part, however, technological advancement succeeds best in “creative environments,” typically seen in smaller, more focused companies. 

How does the “little guy” survive in this environment? 

Figure 1

By staying focused on what we do best, Acromag has created a new general purpose I/O platform that’s perfect for our market’s current and future needs. Using PCIe as a critical interface requirement, we took the mini PCIe concept to the next level by extending the PCB 19mm and adding a 100pin connector to the opposite end and side of the board. Consequently, we can run signals in and out of the FPGA controller and board logic without the need for any cables and provide additional feature capability. 

Whether the board contains analog, digital, programmable FPGA logic or serial communications, each one is designed using SMT components. These components offer a small footprint, low power consumption (less than 5 watts) and very little weight (excellent SWAP factor). The majority of them function in -40 to +85C and MIL-STD 810 environments. We call them AcroPacks (fig. 1).

Figure 2

A clear definition for success

With a family of I/O products in design, efforts turned to carrier cards to provide homes for them in a variety of PCIe-based systems. This is where the future of the plan had to contain clear definition for success. As a result of analyzing the market, we identified rugged servers and VPX systems as our first two strategic partnership potentials. Creating single-height, double-height ½ length and double-height full length PCIe carriers allows rugged server companies and integrators (using rugged servers) to add a huge variety of I/O on single, double and four-site I/O carriers (fig. 2). After addressing the servers, the next logical choice was VPX. 

Figure 3

The 3U conduction-cooled format doesn’t allow for more than a single I/O module to communicate thru the backplane due to the limited number of pins available. We can, however, support three I/O modules on air-cooled applications. We quickly realized that we could provide optimal general purpose I/O flexibility on the 6U VPX platform (fig 3). This form factor allowed for much higher data throughput speeds, but it has always been more expensive on a per-slot basis than 3U VPX. With the opportunity to create a 6U VPX carrier that handled an XMC site and four of the AcroPack products, I realized the potential would be even greater if the XMC site could host an XMC/SBC board. 

Once our design engineer confirmed it was possible, we completed and tested the design with XMC/SBC boards from both Curtiss Wright and Concurrent Technologies. CCT has also exercised the combination successfully (fig. 4).

Figure 4

Consequently, an end user can select an XMC/SBC that meets their needs and install it on the 6U VPX carrier. They can also have four additional I/O modules (including programmable FPGAs), in a single-slot 6U VPX solution. Furthermore, using a second, and even third, carrier with additional I/O modules, other specialized XMC cards can be added, including:

  • multi-channel high speed communications
  • software radio
  • high-speed analog I/O
  • custom graphics
  • video

Doing so creates a 2-3 slot 6U VPX solution that not only rivals a 5-8 slot 3U VPX system in price, but can out-perform it by several times; all while reducing the overall package size!

Conclusion: Smaller companies that stay focused on their core technologies can succeed.

As a result of adopting a strategic partnership approach, smaller companies that focus on their core technologies can succeed in this high-tech world. Partners offer new ways to expand market share by complementing each other’s product lines. Market customers will benefit from these collaborations with improved price/performance solutions for many applications. We’re finding that by maintaining a win-win attitude with our partners, it can be done!

Figure 5

Continuing on this path, Acromag is creating additional partnerships using the AcroPack family of I/O for COMM Express TYPE 10. Our ACEX-4041 carrier will accept a CPU from ADLINK and handle four AP I/O modules and M.2 storage. Ecrin, Acromag’s Channel Partner in France, is developing a fanless SFF solution using #38999 connectors and removable storage for extreme applications based on a similar CPU/carrier combination (fig. 5).

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