An Easier, Lower Cost Path to Customizable SoCs
July 08, 2021
The electronics industry as we know it today is really built around three fundamental categories of products (we might call them the three "S's"): software, semiconductors, and systems. Innovation happens in each of the three categories which spurs further progress, creating a "virtuous cycle" driving the whole industry forward. Innovation in software has always had the lowest barrier to entry from a financial perspective - literally anyone with decent coding skills and a computer can start with very little money needed for anything else. Creating system-level hardware has been only slightly more financially challenging. Just about anyone can get some relatively low-cost PCB layout software, design a board, and then gather a small amount of money to buy some chips and have their board or boards fabricated.
Innovating in Silicon is Expensive
However, innovating in semiconductors has traditionally been much more expensive. Sure, large industries in programmable semiconductors such as FPGAs have helped address that issue, with conversion companies available to help reduce costs for high-volume applications. But creating a truly customized System-on-Chip (SoC), especially one with analog or mixed-signal functionality, has long been a realm where only wealthy companies (or very well financed start-ups) could play. Costs for developing such devices can easily range from millions to tens of millions of dollars or more.
That high cost has created a barrier to entry for start-ups, smaller companies or consultants who might have great ideas requiring custom silicon but lack the financial wherewithal to convert their visions into working devices.
A New Approach Solves the Problem
Now new approaches are being developed which have the potential to dramatically reduce the development cost for custom SoCs. One company called "Efabless", working together with SkyWater Technology and Google, is organizing an ecosystem of open-source IP and development tools to create "an open innovation, hardware creation platform for smart products." Their goal is to democratize access to silicon by making customized SoC development easy and inexpensive.
Program Example: chipIgnite
Efabless has announced a program they call "chipIgnite" which includes a pre-designed carrier chip with a RISC-V processor and subsystem along with ten square millimeters of user-determined IP. Multiple designs from different companies are bundled together on a wafer shuttle targeting SkyWater's SKY130 process to reduce expenses for all of the program participants. The total cost is only $9,750 per design and includes 100 or 300 devices, depending on package option. That's orders of magnitude less expensive than traditional SoC approaches - dramatically broadening the base of potential users and opening the floodgates to a new generation of innovative designs.
Hear more about this technology in a very recent Embedded Executive podcast.
Details on the chipIgnite program are available at: https://www.efabless.com/chipignite.
More information on Efabless, visit: efabless.com/company.
Jeff DiCorpo is responsible for Business Development and Strategic Partnerships at Efabless. Prior to joining Efabless, Jeff was a Business Unit Director at Jabil Circuit supporting strategic development and new business creation initiatives. Jeff also spent over 20 years at Hewlett-Packard working in many roles including as a Distinguished Technologist within the HP StorageWorks Division.