TECH 311

Have you ever wondered what the company NXP makes? 

Posted May 16th, 2016

Story highlights
  • We explain what NXP makes, and its history in Austin. 
  • NXP employs 5,000 in Austin. What does this company even do?

You’ve probably seen the name "NXP" around town, given that this company was the prime sponsor of this year’s Austin Marathon. Or you might have a friend or acquaintance who works there. They employ 5,000 in Austin. 

But if you’re really being honest, you have no idea what NXP Semiconductors does. 

Not to worry, we’re going to give you the Tech 311 on NXP. This occasional feature on 512tech will explain in layman's terms what some of Austin's biggest tech employers actually do.

First, a brief history lesson

You may have heard the name "Freescale." This was what NXP used to be called. In December, Netherlands-based NXP purchased Freescale for $11.8 billion. 

NXP is a massive company with 45,000 workers globally.

Former American-Statesman reporter Kirk Ladendorf wrote about Freescale's history in December:

Freescale and its predecessor, Motorola Semiconductor, played a huge part in getting Austin started in the chip business. In 1974, Motorola expanded from its base in the Phoenix area to build the first chip plant in Central Texas. Motorola wound up building five chip plants in Austin and hiring thousands of workers to design products to be made in those plants. The company reached its peak local employment of more than 11,000 in the late 1990s."

After missing the transition to smartphones, Motorola spun off its semiconductor business in 2004, and that became Freescale. In 2006, Freescale did a leveraged buyout to go private, taking on debt of nearly $10 billion. 

After losing Motorola as a customer, Freescale restructured, cut costs and sold or closed some plants. 

Then the company paid down some of its debt and developed new product lines. Freescale suddenly became an attractive buyout target. Hence the NXP purchase last year. 

Now NXP's largest U.S. presence is in Austin. 

OK, so what does this company actually do?

In the simplest terms, NXP makes the chips that go inside things to help them communicate, process information or become more secure. Think products like e-readers, thermostats, and even car tires and credit cards.

Some of their products fall under the category of processors, which are often referred to as the “brains” of an electronic device. But NXP makes hundreds of thousands of different chips, and they aren't all processors.

Below there are several examples of products that use NXP chips. You'll see the term "microprocessor" and "microcontroller" used a lot, so here is a quick explanation of those terms:

  • A microprocessor is a general purpose computing device, which typically has memory technology built into it. 
  • A microcontroller is a stripped-down smaller and simpler chip than a microprocessor and has just enough intelligence to do simple critical tasks. 

NXP chips can be found in lots of devices — in fact you've probably touched something with an NXP chip inside of it today. Their chips are in everything from 3-D printers to cars to children's toys. 

Here are some examples 

AMAZON ECHO

Amazon via ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Echo is an increasingly popular voice-activated speaker that functions similar to Apple's Siri. It essentially functions as a personal assistant, delivering weather reports, restaurant recommendations, traffic updates and other information. NXP makes an applications processor that is used in Echo's Alexa software. This is essentially the "brains" of the software. This handy visual shows what that apps processor looks like. 

NEST THERMOSTAT

Laura Skelding / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

These smart thermostats can tell when you’re at home, and learn your thermostat setting preferences, making automatic adjustments tailored to your preferences. Nest can also be controlled from afar through an app. Inside a Nest is an NXP-developed micro-controller that drives the LCD display, designed in Austin.

GOOGLE'S SELF-DRIVING CAR

ASSOCIATED PRESS

NXP is heavily involved in developing chips that will be used in self-driving cars. One example NXP debuted recently is a postage-stamp sized radar transceiver that helps a driverless car receive information about the surrounding environment and communicate that back to the vehicle. A prototype is already being field tested by Google. NXP’s Phoenix facility developed and manufactured this chip.

GARMIN VIVOFIT

Lilly Rockwell / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Garmin Vivofit watch tracks your steps, calories burned and sleep cycle. Inside the battery-powered watch is a microcontroller developed by NXP. The micro-controllers are designed here in Austin and provide processing capability with the lower power requirements of a smartwatch. 

VEHICLE INFOTAINMENT SCREEN

Fiat Chrysler Automobile

NXP doesn't name which vendors use its chips for infotainment systems, but it does work with nine out of the 10 top carmakers and eight of the top nine luxury car makers, creating products for more than just infotainment systems.  NXP-designed microprocessors are used to power the infotainment systems on a car’s dashboard. With infotainment systems, typically NXP's clients are companies such as Pioneer and Panasonic, who sell to the auto companies. 

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