A market ripe for disruption
Neil Tyler talks to the founders of Panthronics and looks at how their technology is set to disrupt the NFC market.
A fabless semiconductor company specialising in high performance wireless technology, Panthronics started life in 2014 and this Austrian start-up is looking to seriously disrupt the NFC market.
Headed by Kambiz Hayat-Dawoodi, the CEO and Jakob Jongsma, the CTO, the company entered a NFC market that has been growing rapidly, driven by growing consumer adoption of contactless payments and ticketing, yet one which has been held back by incumbent manufacturers who have been constrained by products based on legacy technology which, according to Hayat-Dawoodi is, “no longer fit for purpose.”
Both men have brought long years of experience to their respective positions having between them worked at ams, Infineon and Texas Instruments for over 30 years.
“We started working together back in the 1990s and from our experiences in this space we learned about the challenges and shortcomings of NFC and what needed to be done to address them,” explains Hayat-Dawoodi.
“It’s fair to say that we started the company, in part, because of the frustration we felt that innovation was difficult to push to market from inside larger companies.”
The market opportunity is certainly huge with some analysts predicting that the NFC market could be worth $24 billion in the next couple of years. At the same time big players, like Apple and Huawei, are using NFC technology in their smartphones..
“When we started we simply wanted to bring an innovative technology to market but now we can see just how big the opportunity is for the company going forward,” explains Hayat-Dawoodi.
In September 2019, Panthronics unveiled a new NFC controller platform to enable manufacturers of industrial devices, such as point-of-sale (PoS) terminals, to implement more robust NFC connectivity in a space-saving design.
“The device, the PTX100R, uses a radical new RF architecture that is able to produce significant improvements in both output power and sensitivity,” explains Jongsma.
“We work closely with manufacturers and when it comes to PoS we’re seeing many different form factors now coming into play. That, in turn, raises the question as to how you locate antennas while addressing sensitivity and interference issues,” he explains. “When you look at legacy technology a lot of additional filtering is required. NFC readers tend to have to operate in challenging environments where noisy displays cause interference in the NFC antenna, which has to be mounted close to it. When it comes to mobile PoS equipment the space for the antenna is limited and the metal enclosure will often hamper the propagation of RF signals.”
The PTX100R uses the company’s patented DiRAC technology which enables the NFC reader to drive output power of up to 3W, directly to the antenna.
“That is more than double the output power capability of other NFC architectures,” explains Jongsma, “and is achieved with a sensitivity of -80dB, which again is more than twice as good as the competition.”
This means that PoS terminals and mobile PoS manufacturers can now achieve EMVCo 3.0 compliance (for contactless payments) with an antenna of just 900mm2, some four to five times smaller than the current norm.
“We’ve managed to remove a lot of components so a lot less heat is generated, and while the device is low power we’ve achieved that without compromising its efficiency,” explains Jongsma.
Among the patented innovations implemented in the PTX100R are: a sine wave output driver that eliminates the need for EMI filters; ultra-precise wave shaping and true on-chip dynamic power control that exceeds the requirements of the new EMVCo 3.0 standard. The company’s DiRAC technology also delivers increased dynamic range and direct sensing of antenna signals.
“All of which provide much greater margin for engineers when it comes to tackling increasingly challenging designs,” Jongsma suggests.
PTX100W NFC charger IC
At a much reduced Embedded World, earlier this year, the company unveiled a new charger IC which was designed to substantially increase power output and significantly reduce wireless charging time for smaller devices such as earbuds and lifestyle-tracker wristbands.
The PTX100W NFC charger IC provides an output power at the charging device’s antenna of >2.5W, which is more than twice as high as that produced by the next best NFC controller on the market, according to the company.
“That higher output power enables much faster charging, making it viable for manufacturers of consumer devices that only have space for a small antenna to eliminate the wired charging circuit from next-generation product designs,” says Jongsma.
Increasingly, manufacturers developing mobile and wearable devices are looking to use wireless charging.
“It offers much greater convenience, more design flexibility and reliability benefits,” suggests Hayat-Dawoodi. “Qi wireless charging, popular in smartphones, is unsuitable for smaller devices because it requires a large antenna and costly circuitry, so NFC wireless charging has much greater appeal. The antenna is smaller with high tolerance of antenna misalignment, and because of the NFC protocol’s supports data communication with a host such as a smartphone.”
Again, until the advent of the PTX100W the adoption of NFC for wireless charging was held back by the low output power provided by conventional NFC controller ICs.
“The PTX100W makes wireless charging via an NFC interface suitable for any device with a battery smaller than 500mAh and it’s able to deliver output power thanks to its sine wave architecture,” says Jongsma.
There is no EMC filter circuitry which means that OEMs can achieve antenna matching impedance some two times lower than that of a conventional solution, which has an EMC filter.
As a result the PTX100W NFC charger is able to drive much higher power through an NFC antenna than existing NFC ICs can, while significantly reducing the power losses introduced by external components.
The PTX100W also supports NFC data communication while charging – data exchange operations are fully compliant with NFC Forum specifications.
“We‘re looking to work closely with other companies who lead in their particular fields,” says Hayat-Dawoodi, “as we look to make inroads into various markets with this technology. We’re looking for synergies. In the case of the consumer/wearables space, we recently developed a demonstration design of a wireless charging system for a device, based on the PTX100W and Renesas’ Synergy S128 MCU.”
According to Hayat-Dawoodi, Panthronics is now making NFC charging a realistic and practical option for new products and, together with its NFC reader, is well placed to really start disrupting this market.