Tech Talk. What is the future of IC design?

In recent decades we have seen massive increases in the complexity of integrated circuits (ICs) along with significant shrinkage in their size, which has enabled the development of incredibly sophisticated electronic devices such as ultra-thin PCs and smartphones. But are these advances suited to all applications? PragmatIC’s IC Design Manager, Dr Antony Sou, outlines how a different approach to electronics – designing for simplicity – is going to open up huge new markets that are difficult to reach with conventional ICs.

Conventional IC design philosophy

IC (chip) design costs have sky-rocketed as technology nodes shrink, which has encouraged the design philosophy of programmable ICs. This enables economies of scale in manufacturing as software is used to modify their behaviour for specific applications. Professor Paul Kelly of Imperial College London says these processors are subject to a “Turing Tax”, that is for a specific application the IC is more complex than it could be if it had been designed specifically for that single use case. As we move towards the very edge of the Internet of Everything, this conventional design philosophy starts to cause problems. Here we are talking about very high volume and low-cost items, such as consumer goods: where we actually want low complexity and low power functionality. For these applications that only require simple functions, the IC size is often determined by the input/output connections and it hits a floor. And it can also cause assembly issues – for example in the RFID use case, their small size requires specialised machines and an extra strap (second metal layer) to make the bridge across the antenna – so more cost.

A different IC design philosophy

PragmatIC decided a completely different design philosophy was required to reduce the barriers to producing ultra-low cost ICs suitable for consumer goods and everyday objects. We design for simplicity in all aspects: our flexible integrated circuits, or FlexICs, are produced on our FlexLogIC® manufacturing system, which has significantly lower tape out costs and has fabrication turnaround times measured in days. These short design cycles allow rapid refinement of bespoke designs for single applications. We make our FlexICs using our unique platform of patented technologies which are inherently low cost, flexible, robust and thinner than a human hair.  Our designs are not as small as traditional silicon, but this can bring advantages, making them easier to handle and more practical in a wide range of applications. Designers can still use industry standard tools, so there is no additional development overhead when using PragmatIC’s technology.

Next steps

Watch our Designing for simplicity video to learn why the way we design our FlexICs is so different to silicon ICs. https://www.pragmatic.tech/news-events/videos