Blog September 9, 2021
Faraday Technology Takes Flexible Approach to IoT
Faraday Technology has decades of experience in designing for specialized processing. Now, with Arm Flexible Access, it has greater design freedom than ever.
Faraday Technology, which spun out of semiconductor foundry UMC in 1993, is Asia’s first large-scale fabless ASIC design service firm. It tapes out approximately 40 to 50 ASICs (application-specific integrated circuit) for networking equipment, multifunction printers, projectors, industrial internet of things (IIoT) and other applications per year, explains Raymond Lai, senior associate vice president at business and marketing VP office of the company.
Close to 70 percent of the projects involve designs for 40-nanometer processes or smaller. Faraday’s turnkey services span the gamut from front-end design and layout services and to test, packaging, and failure analysis. Serving the customer base requires staffing support and service centers in Oregon, Vietnam, India, and elsewhere.
Some of Faraday’s recent projects include developing analog and mixed-signal devices for leading makers of musical instruments, low power display drivers for smartphone OLEDs, voice recognition AI processors, processors for stereo headphones, and camera SoCs. It also released an SoC development platform based around the Arm Cortex-A53. Services for designing processors for UMC’s 28nm HPC process were already available, and for Samsung’s 14nm LPC process will be announced by the end of this year.
The IoT design dilemma
Although the diversity of projects already ranges fairly widely, it will expand even more broadly as IoT gain momentum. For the first 60 years of computing, computers, smartphones and other systems were built around the thermal, electrical, economic, and volumetric properties of processors and other internal components.
In IoT, the dynamic is reversed: the essential ingredients of computing have to be tailored to fit the cost and space constraints of air conditioners, lighting systems and other things that will get a jolt over intelligence in the next decade.
It’s a diverse, expansive ecosystem. Not only are there a lot of so-called things that could be improved with connectivity and embedded intelligence, but the performance requirements also vary wildly. Industrial IoT processors for robots or expensive equipment like generators might need the equivalent of a server chip while remote sensing devices might have to run on a single battery charge for years. At the same time, customers are increasingly gravitating toward geometries and technologies like 22nm and FinFETs for embedded applications.
To help manage these challenges, Faraday enrolled in Arm Flexible Access in 2019. Under Flexible Access, customers are given broad access to Arm’s IP portfolio during the design phase of a project for low, or in some cases no, fees. Licensing payments only begin after a design is complete and the project is moving toward commercialization. The idea is to give engineers the space to experiment freely with different technologies or respond quickly to regulatory or market changes.
Flexible Access, along with Faraday’s extensive IP portfolio and relationships at established foundries like UMC and Samsung, ultimately serve to eliminate barriers to creative thinking when it comes to design.
Faraday’s customers can roughly be divided into two categories: semiconductor startups that require additional expertise in getting to market and equipment manufacturers that require an ASIC solution (versus an off-the-shelf component) to achieve their desired goals. Lai estimates that Faraday currently has 10 AIoT projects underway.
“Customization, self-developed IP, and risk management to ensure mass production are our big competitive advantages,” he said. “It is quite important to be good at risk management for SoC success.”
The future forecast
How big will AIoT, and by extension the demand for ASICs that can make it a reality, get? Although billions of microprocessors and microcontrollers are sold each year, only a fraction of the devices around us have the embedded capabilities to perform the kind of complex tasks or decision-making we’d associate with intelligence.
A recent survey by Omdia noted that only ten percent of the 232.6 million industrial machines installed in 2020 were IoT enabled and the population of IoT-enabled equipment is far lower in the wider installed base. Likewise, power and water grids will see a tremendous influx of digital technology as utilities seek to optimize services and resource consumption through smart bidirectional control.
When one begins to contemplate the different use cases, it becomes clear that specialized processing soon won’t really be “special.” It will be the norm.
A New, Transparent Way of Working with Arm
Arm Flexible Access provides up-front, no-cost or low-cost access to a wide range of Arm IP, tools, and training. Experiment and design with the entire portfolio; license fees, if any, are only due at the point of manufacture and calculated only on the IP included in the final SoC design.
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Brian Fuller and Jack Melling