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  • Who can you turn to if you want to make your own chip? • The register

Who can you turn to if you want to make your own chip? • The register

By on March 17, 2022 0

Maintenance Companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft can design custom chips and have them manufactured using their billions of dollars in the bank.

Small companies wishing to manufacture their own processors or microcontrollers, for example, do not have the same luck because they lack funds and resources. Getting even a small volume of physical chips into the hands of engineers and developers for experimentation is a tall order. FPGAs are an option, although they have their limitations, and you might just want the experience or advantages of registering your own ASIC.

Now, a company called Efabless hopes to bridge the capability gap by helping people get their semiconductor blueprints into a factory for low-cost manufacturing. Access to a manufacturing plant has become particularly difficult, as demand for chips exceeds production on assembly lines globally.

Our goal is to put the design in the hands not only of chip designers who just didn’t have the resources, but to make it so simple that anyone could create a chip

“Our goal is to put design into the hands not just of chip designers who just didn’t have the resources, but to make it so simple that anyone could create a chip,” said Michael Wishart, CEO of Efabless. The register this week.

The company connects chip startups with limited resources and universities with tight budgets to manufacturers, who then supply small volumes of finished components. The proliferation of open architectures such as RISC-V, along with the increased availability and improvement of chip design tools, known as EDA software, have arguably contributed to a boom in custom chip designs, primarily lowering the barrier to entry.

Planning the logic in a chip is only a small part of the process. Not only does it have to be simulated, prototyped and verified, but it has to go through various engineering stages to make it manufacturable before it even reaches the manufacturing and packaging stages, and then you have to build the PCBs that the chips will go on . to test and assemble the product. “Getting the whole idea of ​​the chip life cycle down, including the last mile of prototyping and then production, is key,” Wishart explained.

Absolutely without fables

Nvidia and Apple popularized the fabless business model amid a consolidation in the semiconductor world in which fables-owning companies were swallowed up by others, shrinking the number of silicon chipmakers. AMD also became fabless and sold off its assembly lines due to overhead.

“The initial costs are too high because this whole model was designed for a different need: mass parts,” Wishart said, referring to the fact that not everyone needs components in quantities of one. million.

This situation has created an opening for groups like Efabless, which is more of an intermediary between chip designers and manufacturers. The company had 160 registrations in 2021, compared to none in 2020, Wishart said.

A program, dubbed ChipIgnite, launched recently by Efabless includes options to get a number of chips manufactured for around $10,000, or to get 1,000 pieces for $20 each. The dies are made using Skywater Technology’s 130nm process, which isn’t advanced, but allows startups to get prototypes to show off or demonstrate systems with.

“For many projects, you can do it on these older nodes. It’s also extremely affordable. The beauty of older nodes right now is that they give us a chance to advance the open source EDA environment and it’s changing rapidly,” Wishart said. There is a collection of open source chip design tools that include Chisel, Amaranth, and Yosys to get you started.

“You will see an additional foundry with an additional node in the next few months being announced,” he added. “We are not going to move to 45nm, 65nm or 28nm yet, but it will come.”

Efabless provides back-end and flow-based tools to automate chip design and optimize it for the manufacturing process. For example, a designer can drop elements of a design into empty space on Caravel, a silicon chip framework that already has a reserved microcontroller, memory, and management area.

Open architecture

Efabless also runs an initiative called OpenMPW, in which Google funds the design and manufacture of select open-source chips for organizations. We’ve already reported on the web giant’s earlier offer of free chips for select projects. One of the participants in OpenMPW is Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, where Professor Harald Pretz hopes to put a physical mixed-signal chip in the hands of students.

Pretz recently submitted the open-source design and will compete with other applicants for the 40 seats available under the program. The deadline for submitting projects is March 21.

Professor Pretz has many reasons to get physical chips, including seeing how well the design tools, which include Icarus Verilog for RTL simulation, actually work. Other areas of interest include how well the design holds up under real-world circumstances and how quickly students move through the learning curve.

I want to see working silicon, produced by a full open-source stream, working in our lab before I can commit to larger projects there.

“I want to see working silicon, produced by a full open-source stream, working in our lab before I can commit to larger projects there, so in a sense this was a test drive for our research group,” said said the professor. The register.

Pretz also used the possibility of actual tape output as an added incentive for students to build integrated circuits. If the university’s design is included in the tape-out, Pretz expects to pick up the components in December.

“We will receive 50 wrapped coins and five ready-to-use evaluation cards, which is very convenient. Since I will be getting so many coins, I have promised each participating student a chip for their use,” Pretz said. .

Efabless works by combining a bunch of small orders and shipping them to a manufacturer in one high-volume order. This is called a multi-project wafer, or MFW, approach because it accommodates a range of customer designs on each wafer. Manufacturers usually prefer this type of bulk orders because of the overhead of setting up machines for each job.

MOSIS is another such company offering MFW services; there are others in the world.

“It’s like a palette with 40 separate patterns on it,” Wishart said. “But for the foundry, it looks like a single drawing.”

“We handle the prechecks and all of that, checking the manufacturability of the design before the design even goes to the foundry,” continued Wishart, who was formerly a board member of Cypress Semiconductor and chairman of Goldman Sachs. . global technology group.

Efabless, which was founded in 2014, received seed funding earlier this year from New North Ventures, which has a portfolio that includes AI and cybersecurity companies. Besides Google, the company’s backers include Arm and GlobalFoundries. ®