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New Design Opportunities as Semiconductor Device Type Boundaries Blur

In a May 2, 2011 presentation at the Semico Summit, Mr. Danny Biran, Senior VP of Marketing at Altera, discussed new opportunities as the boundaries between semiconductor logic device types become blurred. According to Mr. Biran, the boundary between FPGAs, ASICS, ASSPS and CPUs (MPUs, MCUs and DSPs has until recently been extremely well defined. 

FPGAs were customer programmable standard products.  Programming was developed for and owned by the customer.  ASICs used a standard cell design methodology.  The design was owned by the customer.  ASSPs were a standard high-volume product developed by the semiconductor vendor for sale to multiple customers.  MPUs, MCUs and DSPs were standard products, but the software needed to implement an application was developed by the customer.  Now, the boundaries between those categories are becoming blurred. Various semiconductor vendors are offering FPGAs with an on-board MPU, ASICs that include an FPGA block or ASSPs with multiple processing cores.  

The Economics of Innovation... Daunting

The convergence of mobility, communication and computing has produced multifunctional end applications that are placing huge demands on semiconductor manufacturers.  These new devices require low power, high performance, and a lot  of advanced manufacturing capacity at a low cost.

At the 2011 Semico Summit, Gregg Bartlett, Senior Vice President of Technology and Research and Development, GLOBALFOUNDRIES talked about the economics of innovation, highlighting the daunting economic and technology challenges to bring products to market.  Just a few of the major costs include the following:

  • $1-2 billion in leading edge process technology development,
  • 3-4 years of development,
  • $40-$50 million in chip design costs,
  • $250 million for design enablement such as libraries and IP,
  • $5-$7 billion for an advanced 300mm fab.

Today’s market is a high stakes game.  Its no wonder that the industry has embraced a collaborative environment at all levels.

Sandeep Vij, President and CEO of MIPS Technologies

At the just concluded Semico Summit 2011 conference, Sandeep Vij, President and CEO of MIPS Technologies made some very interesting observations regarding Consumer electronics applications and their use of memory resources. We all know that the feature sets and functionality of devices aimed at Consumer applications have been increasing over the last 3-4 years.

This is driven by the requirements of users of these devices for OEMs to deliver ever-increasing amounts of functionality like HD quality video, video downloads, touch screens, multiple HD cameras, personal video conferencing and multiple types of integrated sensors. Future requirements will include, but are not limited to, medical sensors, 100’s if not 1000’s of apps run in the devices, 3D-HD video, etc. These new levels of functionality must be fulfilled by placing higher levels of complexity into these silicon solutions to provide the right feature sets consumers desire.

All this takes an increasing amount of resources to deliver the right user experience. MIPS is the second largest CPU IP vendor next to ARM and is one of the first companies to see what these new levels of functionality demand in terms of the compute and system resources that must be placed into the system.

CEO of Xilinx Corporation, Moshe Gavrielov

Semico Research Corp. was privileged to have the CEO of Xilinx Corporation, Moshe Gavrielov, deliver a presentation on developments in the Programmable Logic market at our just concluded Semico Summit 2011 conference. Moshe made some very interesting points that are not necessarily always connected to the programmable logic market:

The GigaChip Interface: A Network Processing Memory Access Time Solution

In an a May 2, 2011 presentation at the Semico Summit, Mr. Len Perham CEO, MoSys, Inc. discussed looming problems in the processing of Internet traffic and offered a solution. According to Mr. Perham, Internet traffic will increase exponentially over the next three years, driven by applications such as video streaming, IPTV, P2P, cloud computing, social networking and VoIP + video.  Today’s traffic routing methods will not be able to keep up with that growth, and memory is the bottleneck. 

The problem is that today’s 40Gbps and 100Gbps packet processor line cards address memory on parallel connections, which will not be adequate at faster speeds beyond 100Gbps.  Routing data at those speeds will require a serial connection to the memory, not a parallel connection. MoSys has developed the GigaChip™ Interface, which is now an open standard supported by the GigaChip Alliance. 

The GigaChip Interface is a short-reach, low-power serial interface, which enables highly efficient, high-bandwidth, low-latency performance.   It provides a fundamental performance breakthrough similar to the breakthrough achieved by DDR (Double Data Rate) DRAM.   The GigaChip Interface, using differential SerDes technology, is the next breakthrough in network processor to memory connections.  It allows a multiple-processor network processor to address multi-bank, multi-partitioned memory, so that each processor has access to memory without waiting.

Dual Paths Down the Cost Curve: Scaling and 3D

Joe Sawicki, VP and GM of the Design-to-Silicon Division for Mentor Graphics, joined us at the Semico Summit on Tuesday to discuss scaling and the conversion to 3D.  He focused on a motto of “Willful Optimism” for the future.

Moore’s Law has been a cornerstone of our industry for 40 years, and a trend the speakers at the 2011 Summit were discussing was “More than Moore,” an idea that we are moving away from density to integration.  Joe Sawicki addressed this idea by discussing how scaling can only get us so far with advancing our speed and storage capabilities.  By 2026, he said, if we hold to Moore’s Law, we’ll be holding half a year’s movie collection on our phone.

In the future, Mentor Graphics believes we may be seeing the “e-Cube,” where we’ll have cubes of semiconductors instead of a die.

In discussing transitioning to 3D, there are cost and thermal issues, regardless of the advantages.  As a stepping stone, the industry can obtain many of the advantages of 3D by using 2.5D, a cost effective method to swing into the next generation.

Finally! Solid Data For The Semiconductor Secondary Equipment Market

The semiconductor industry grabs headlines as companies such as Intel announce the construction of multi-billion-dollar state-of-the-art research and manufacturing facilities. High performance servers, PCs and most of our electronic devices would not exist today if it weren’t for the continual advancements made in semiconductor manufacturing technology. While the most advanced chips supply the processing power and memory needed to provide the functionality and capabilities of our newest mobile devices and home electronics, they are surrounded and supported by dozens of other non-leading edge or mainstream semiconductor devices that play a crucial role in the electronics industry but don’t garner the same level of attention.

The vast majority of these mainstream semiconductors are actually manufactured on something less than leading edge technologies. Analog devices, sensors, microcontrollers, optoelectronics, discretes, MEMS and a number of other semiconductor products comprise the largest markets in terms of semiconductor units.

Akustica AKU230: A Tiny Microphone with Huge Potential

Can you hear me? I’m using a microphone on a 0.7mm2 MEMS die in a package measuring only 3.76mm x 4.72mm x 1.25mm. It’s the Akustica AKU230 digital, CMOS MEMS microphone, announced on March 30, 2010. For anyone who still doesn’t speak metric, the package size is less than 3/16” X 1/8” X 3/64.” For anyone still having trouble visualizing it, the package is smaller than a 14 point font capital “A” stamped out of a penny as a rectangle. In the simplest terms, really small. Of course, I’m not really using the Akustica AKU230, but I could be. It is used primarily in notebook computers, just like the one I’m typing on. The AKU230 is manufactured using conventional CMOS processes. The microphone membrane is a metal/dielectric layer, manufactured just like every other metal/dielectric layer in a CMOS process. The ADC circuitry is located around the membrane and is fabricated at the same time as the membrane during the same conventional CMOS processes. This approach offers savings in silicon area compared to a MEMS microphone fabricated using more traditional MEMS processes. Some MEMS microphones have an analog audio output. Some have an analog audio output but can provide a digital output using a second semiconductor, essentially an ADC. Akustica MEMS microphones, including the AKU230, are the only MEMS microphones that combine the microphone and the ADC circuitry on one chip, offering a simpler, less expensive solution and one insertion cost rather than two.

More Base Station DAC Performance with Less Power and Size

As cell phones improve, offering more features and higher data transmission rates, base station manufacturers must provide more with less.  More bandwidth, more channels, more quality of service with less power, less space and less cost.  On March 21, 2011 Texas Instruments Incorporated announced the availability of three new 16-bit DACs that will help base station manufacturers accomplish exactly that.

Part number DAC3484 is a quad DAC with an interleaved 16-bit input bus.  It has a sample rate of 1.25 GSPS and 2X -16X interpolation, which allows a 312.5MSPS input each of its on four paths.   Part number DAC3482 is a dual DAC, also with 2X - 16X interpolation, which allows an input rate of 625MSPS on each of its two channels.  Finally, part number DAC34H84 is a quad DAC with a wider 32-bit input bus, which allows a sampling rate of 625MSPS on each of its four paths.

Let’s focus on the DAC3484.  Its sampling rate is 25% faster than its nearest competitor.  It needs only 250mw of power, 65% less than its competition.  It fits in a 9mm X 9mm multi-row QFN package, 40% smaller than its nearest competitor.  It has an internal low-jitter 2x to 32x phase locked loop timer, which eliminates the need for an external, low-jitter clock multiplier to match the interpolated rate.  This is doing more with less.

Analog Circuit Design to Go

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a design engineer at a company making an industrial control device or a medical instrument.  You’ve got the digital portion of your design pretty well nailed, but there is a 4mA to 20mA process control loop and some isolation issues that you’re a little concerned about.  Although you could design some analog circuits to solve these problems, you’re really a digit-head.  It would take a lot of your time, and you’re not sure you would get it right the first time.  What to do? Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI) has solved your problem.  ADI has recently introduced an expanded version of the company’s Circuits from the LabTM reference circuits.  These are not reference designs.  They don’t tell an engineer how to design an entire system.  Rather, they provide lab-tested circuit designs for some common analog circuits that give design engineers problems.  Some examples are ADC drivers, DAC outputs, RF or IF circuits or isolation circuits.  A complete list is available on the ADI website. In addition to the circuit design, ADI also provides circuit documentation test data and is now offering PCB layout files, software device drivers and, in some cases, evaluation hardware.  The purpose is to provide a deeper understanding of the circuit so that an engineer can easily trouble-shoot any glitches that might crop up.