Test & Measurement

Embracing Silicon gives a product the edge

18th May 2021
Lanna Deamer

Companies are continually looking for innovative ways to differentiate their products from the crowd and to make them more competitive in both cost and performance. They can embrace the advantages of higher integration through the increasing use of ASIC technology. Here, Richard Mount of Swindon Silicon Systems discusses how constant improvements in silicon design and manufacturing processes are opening the world of Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) to many more applications and manufacturers.

Today’s high quality and high reliability foundry Process Design Kits (PDKs) and models now allow for no risk development with timescales and budgets calculated and agreed prior to project start.

The increase in functionality and the availability of commercially viable IP, either from the design company, the foundry or from a third party, reduces further the time to market by shrinking the design time. Increases in functionality with the inclusion of microprocessors such as an ARM Cortex, now allow for the System on Chip (SoC) concept to be a reality and available to many more companies.

This concept delivers a reduction in size and cost through the integration of more of the discrete ICs and components than ever before.

Here are the key reasons why you should consider an ASIC silicon solution for your next generation product - beginning with functionality and continuing with design and manufacturing costs, timescales as well as other less obvious benefits.

Huge amount of savings

A mixed signal ASIC is designed to include a wide variety of both analog and digital functionality necessary for your application. The result is a chip that is designed to deliver an optimised performance exactly to the customer’s specific requirements and that delivers a huge amount of savings on board space compared to a discrete components solution.

Your design team first decides upon the operating voltage or voltages that are required. Inclusions such as a microprocessor, an ARM Cortex for example, a choice of memory type such as Flash or EEPROM, power management, ADCs, DACs, low and band-pass filtering, sensors - including MEMS pressure, photodiode and temperature, frequency generators and a wide choice of communication protocols, both wireless and wired, all need to be considered and applied to the custom design.

Device protection is also an important element such as EMC and surge and reverse polarity which provides robustness in the field.

All this adds up to a silicon device that is functionally unique to the customer and exactly meets the requirements of the application.

Design Cost

The ever-increasing availability of foundry and third-party IP has changed the way integrated circuits are designed - from handcrafting every function at the transistor level to using existing IP blocks that have been verified in a known environment.

Over a relatively short number of years the cost of designing custom silicon has fallen dramatically and the long-held myths of projects over-running budget are long gone. Experienced ASIC companies have significant existing silicon-proven IP libraries that they can leverage along with other commercially available IP, which assists greatly in keeping design times down and costs to a minimum. With a focus on versatile and proven engineering solutions, some ASIC companies can deliver a turnkey experience that’s often more affordable than you would expect.

Cost of Manufacture

Many of today’s applications are generally based on mixed signal designs using geometries from 55nm up to 350nm. As the high volume consumer electronics market is primarily served by digital designs and ever reducing geometries, there is an availability of the geometry nodes that fit the mixed signal design. These geometries may not be suitable for the very latest, highly integrated, and high performance digital ICs, but they remain ideal for mixed-signal solutions both technically and from a cost perspective.

To maximise their foundry utilisation, manufacturers need to continually attract new customers. They achieve this by offering competitive engineering costs both in wafer production and production tooling such as masks and IP. These low manufacturing costs can be improved still further when partnering with an established full turnkey ASIC company like Swindon. This is achieved by the economies of scale that an established ASIC company has by leveraging its current wafer portfolio on future wafer purchases.

Timescale

Time to market is one of the most important aspects of any new product development and it is here that huge strides have been made over the last decade or so. A custom ASIC no longer means a hand-crafted design mainly thanks to the availability of IP. Additionally the process flow and engineering sample availability that the silicon foundries now offer is much more flexible and allows for time saving over traditional approaches like the Multi Project Wafer (MPW) route.

IP Protection

One of the principal reasons why a company will commission an ASIC is to protect its Intellectual Property (IP). The strength of an ASIC is that it is extremely difficult to re-engineer the IC or for it to be 're-used' in other designs. Here at Swindon we provide our customers full ownership of the completed system design ensuring that the IP of the final solution remains firmly in the customer’s possession.

Non-Obsolescence

Customers also choose the ASIC route to guarantee component supply for the lifetime of their product with no gaps in availability. Silicon companies such as Swindon will usually guarantee that the device will be available until the customer end of life’s its product manufacture by using a few methods such as storing wafers in dry nitrogen cupboards for up to 25 years.

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