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The Cutting Edge May Be Moving

When most people think about leading edge chip design, their minds turn to consumer devices, with things such as smartphones, or other devices that are designed to consume entertainment. But hold on: That's not always the case.

It is true that the ubiquitous smartphone is often the biggest and most complex design in the industry, using the latest fabrication technologies and garnering the most attention. These devices are attempting to maximize the levels of integration so that costs can be reduced, product size and weight reduced, interesting form factors explored, battery life extended — the list goes on.

Most certainly, integrated analog will be in play here. There are also technology issues pressuring this trend such as reducing costly off-chip communications which slow a product down and raise the power consumption levels. But it is not always on this “leading” edge that some of the problems have to be tackled. There is actually a much bigger wave that is happening that will require that some of these concepts are taken far beyond the demands of cellphones and add a whole new set of challenges as well.

One example of the kind of challenge I am talking about has been dubbed the Internet of Things (IoT). This term does not really capture the real magnitude and scale of the concept and it can range from the cloud and big-data issues all the way down to remote sensors, or the way in which communicating devices can act more intelligently than they do today. It is those sensors that I am talking about when I talk about some real challenges.

Consider battery life — it is quite possible that these devices will not have a battery or even access to a source of power. They must scavenge power from the environment in which they operate. This means that designs must not just be low-power, but ultra-low power where every picoamp is accounted for. Again, we can see how analog drives solutions in general and integrated analog drives solutions in particular.

Another dimension is that the devices must be very low cost. Think about the introduction of RFID tagging. It wasn't until the cost of these devices came down to single digit cents per device that it appears as if adoption has started to explode. Even my local library now uses this technology in all of their books and it makes checkout a breeze. Some people are talking about the 1 cent devices and at that point I doubt there is little from stopping every store from putting them on all of their products. That will bring about all kinds of benefits for the consumer and for the store. This kind of aggressive price reduction takes just as much cutting-edge technology as the creation of a cellphone.

Yet a third area where significant changes are likely to happen is security. We treat it with a cursory glance today and just hope and trust that people will not try and steal our data, our personal information, or attack our devices. Can the Smart Grid leave so much to trust? I don't think so. Just think of stuxnet — a worm designed to corrupt data that would lead to an industrial device going out of control.

So what is my point? I think there are many challenges that we, as an industry, are going to have to face. In the past we have been sloppy and that has almost been ingrained into our thinking. It doesn't matter if we over-engineer something a little as long as it gets us to market faster, or who cares if we have a little more computational power than we need, or if the software has been optimized as well as it could be. We are now going to have to find ways to tighten up on many aspects of the design flow.

Can we afford the extra accuracy; can we justify the safety margins? Sometimes the answer will be yes, other times an emphatic no. I wonder how much tools will have to change as well as the mentality of using them. How do we understand the operation of a component or a circuit more than just accepting the current limits? What about the analog/digital tradeoffs? Does the needle begin to shift back towards favoring analog, but perhaps only if analog can tighten its belt as well. I think that this is going to be one of the major drivers of design methodologies and EDA tools in the near future, but I would be interested in hearing your views as well.

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9 comments on “The Cutting Edge May Be Moving

  1. bjcoppa
    May 10, 2013

    As more features and power-hungry apps are added to smartphones, phone makers are under pressure to find ways of extending battery life. However, the up side is that people are already used to charging nearly daily so their is a low bar set as opposed to the opposite trend. However, companies still need to be reasonable even though it is not a top line concern for customers. Many companies have released wireless charging systems as well as solar powered ones which are pricey now but will slowly be adopted.

  2. Netcrawl
    May 11, 2013

    Consumers are demanding more from their smartphones-inlucing adding more cores- the so-called rise of the Quad cores chips is now taking a huge play in smartphone space. I think in the next few years we about to see some dramatic changes in this area, it could be the next big battleground for most chipmaking company, it has a huge potentials, companies are scrambling fast to enter the smartphone space, they do recognized its vast potential for growth. A great example of this is Intel taking a huge play in the world of smartphones. 

  3. Brad Albing
    May 14, 2013

    I've seen some of those wireless charging systems – some seem a little sensitive to orientation and alignment. And I suppose the photovoltaic ones are somewhat useful. But beyond that, we do need to figure out ways to lower system power draw. Which I'm hoping some of the interated analog solutions will address.

  4. Brad Albing
    May 14, 2013

    i take from that approach that smart phones will be even smarter (more computing power) which probably means even poorer battery life. Bummer.

  5. TheMeasurementBlues
    May 14, 2013

    Brian,

    I can see the day when every IoT device left outdoors has a tiny solar panel or a tine windmill to get power. There's some research being done on using piezoelectric devices to harvest energy from out movements, too. See Human Energy.

    Then there's IoT. These things are taking off. many are now using batteries but if power consumption can get low enough, they may not need batteries at all. take a look at Behind the Internet of Things and Slideshow: Verizon Innovation Center to see some of the devices.

  6. BrianBailey
    May 14, 2013

    As soon as you put a rechargeable battery in there the problems begin. Battery charge cycles are limited (except for capacitors) and you have already added extra complexity, driving up cost.

  7. Brad Albing
    May 14, 2013

    Exactly. Martin has some good ideas there regarding energy harvesting. If we can just get the power draw done low enough, we can use small PVAs and piezo-benders to harvest the juice needed.

  8. jkvasan
    May 15, 2013

    @Martin,

    My wild thinking gets me to form a crazy idea. Can these devices funtion from the band gap voltage of a diode? I guess a diode's voltage could supply  some picoAmps. Is it possible? What are the ideas of others?

  9. Brad Albing
    May 15, 2013

    Should be possible – and you may get more than just pA. I know LEDs act as PV cells (very low power of course). So using a silicon diode or LED would be a lot lower cost than using conventional PV cells.

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