Marvell introduces their 88PA6120 3D printer SoC and HDK

Old SoC plus new software equals really good idea

Marvell logoMarvell is launching a new business unit for 3D printer SoCs along with the exciting new 88PA6120 and software. To be fair the SoC isn’t actually new but the rest is new and enough to make SemiAccurate give it our coveted, “Really good idea” award.(1)

So what exactly is Marvell launching today? They big news is the stuff they are putting around their 88PA6120 SoC, a HDK/development board and a full suite of software plus tools. Those readers steeped in current printer SoC lore (Note: We really do have some on S|A, this isn’t a joke) will recognize that the 88PA6120 is not a new SoC for 3D printers at all, it is a current SoC for 2D printers. You can see the Marvell printer SoC lineup here and the flyer for the 88PA6120 here.

Marvell 99PA6120 printer SoC block diagram

Block diagram of the 88PA6120 SoC

The 88PA6120 itself isn’t going to impress anyone who is familiar with the latest crop of 64-bit ARM SoCs aimed at the phone market, this one has a mere three CPU cores running at 533MHz. What’s more two of them aren’t really suited for running code on, they are ARM R-class realtime cores for things like motor control. The main core in the SoC is a custom Marvell ARM v7A design.

As you can tell from the diagram above, most of the work done by this chip is carried out by dedicated hardware. There is an image pipeline for scanning data in and rendering/rasterizing it for the print heads, physical motor controller hardware, along with tons of ‘normal’ I/O that you are familiar with. Those R-class cores coordinate all the units and make sure that when the correct print head is over position X,Y, it will actually fire a blob of ink at the exact right time. The v7A core runs the code for things like UIs, data movement, and higher level data manipulation.

Marvell claims that their SoCs are in over half the printers out there, something we didn’t realize but given how much attention printer SoCs get, we don’t doubt either. The 88PA6120 is on the market now and given how widespread they are, you have probably used one at some point. If you can buy them now on the open market and they are made for 2D printers, what is the big deal about anything they are doing today?

As it turns out, the calculations you need to do for 2D printing are very similar to those you need for 3D printing. Instead of putting a blob of ink color Z at position X,Y, you need to put a monochrome blob of molten plastic at position X,Y,Z. Instead of two motors for X,Y position and one for paper feed you have three-dimensional positioning. The hardware demands aren’t that different, the number crunching uses many of the same algorithms, and just about everything 2D maps to something 3D. This is the long way of saying there are no hardware changes to the 2D 88PA6120 to get the 3D 88PA6120.

On the software side however, everything is different and this is where Marvell goes from being an SoC provider to being a solution provider and a very smart one at that. As you can tell from the SoC, it is not just a very complex beast but one that will be a pain to program. Add in all the realtime elements and you have a very steep learning curve to implement even a basic 3D printer. This of course is exactly the opposite of what Marvell wants, they want it to be easy so it becomes widespread and moves a lot of chips.

To that end, Marvell provides the usual HDK and reference board but also a full set of 3D printer software. They did the hard part now it is up to you to differentiate your product through features or hardware by customizing what they provide. The hard parts are done, the parts that hopefully make you money are your problem. As long as you base your designs on a Marvell SoC, they are happy for you to use their low-level code.

Marvell 3D printer reference design

The reference design printer shows the HDK board

The 3D printer kit that Marvell provides is Linux-based, they get their market, providing and SDK, real-time motion control, Ethernet or Wi-FI I/O, and LCD support with UI tools. This of course works on their reference 88PA6120 board also included in the kit, you can see it on the top of the reference printer above. Plug in a few motors, a heater, and all the other mechanical bits and you are off and running. The reference design printer the company built even has a 720p camera so you can monitor the progress live on your smartphone. Yes they have an app for that too so you don’t have to write one.

If you want to plug-in a video camera, that part is already done. If you want to add a full 3D scanner to your impending masterpiece built on Marvell’s HDK, no problem there either but the code isn’t done for you. The SoC itself will only take USB2 inputs so all the heavy lifting of the image processing has to be done on the camera, but that is not a big deal. If you pick the right external hardware, the 88PA6120 should happily support a fully integrated 3D scanner and printer combo.

If your brilliant idea is too much for the 533MHz core or needs more I/O than this SoC provides, there is hope. Before you come up with the knee jerk response about the speed of the core though, think about the 3D printing process. Even simple items can take tens of minutes to print, complex and large ones may take literally hours to spit out. That single ‘slow’ core is going to be waiting quite a long time for the printhead to move, CPU power is not the bottleneck for the overwhelming majority of use cases.

That said if you do have an application that does bottleneck on the CPU, or if the 88PA6120 SoC is overkill for your design, there is hope. Although the HDK and reference board from today’s announcement are for the 88PA6120, the software is not so limited. Any of Marvell’s printer SoCs are supported by the tools that are out today so you can step up to the 88PA6170 or down to the 88PA6110 should you choose. Most if not all of Marvell’s 2D printer line is now Marvell’s 3D printer line too, it is a full set of offerings at launch.

And that in a nutshell is why SemiAccurate thinks Marvell is doing the right thing for the right reasons. They took a high volume SoC line and repurposed it into one for a low volume market, as long as they sell a chip, Marvell doesn’t care what it ends up in. Instead of a designer or manufacturer having to pay for more generic hardware then they need or eating the fixed costs for a bespoke low volume chip, they get the best of both worlds with the 88PA6120. Best of all Marvell did the hard part, all the low-level control software that doesn’t add value to an end design as long as it works right. All you have to do now is buy an HDK and differentiate your product. That is a lot easier than re-writing realtime motor control code for no real reason. We think this offering from Marvell is going to change the 3D printer world for all the right reasons.S|A

(1) This is the first recipient of the coveted SemiAccurate “Really good idea” award mainly because we just made it up. That said having such an award is probably a good idea but we promise never to sell it like some other sites do. If you get this award, we think you really deserve it.

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate