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ARM sees some promise in plastic electronics

Posted: 26 Nov 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ARM? processor? SoC? IoT? Moore's Law?

During the recent ARM TechCon, CTO Mike Muller went through more than 30 years of ARM's history by putting side by side the ARM1 designed at the 3000nm (3?m) node with 25k transistors and the Cortex M0's 48k transistors now designed at the 20nm node.

And to better put things in perspective, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the company's founding, Muller had set to pick 2?m design rules to build a small SoC around a Cortex M0 and exhibit the result to the conference attendees.

"You don't put many SoCs on a 6in wafer at the 2?m node," he said, showing a nearly transparent sheet with about five or six "dies," each holding the Cortex M0 and enough memory and enough I/Os to boot and make an LED flash. But as Muller flexed the wafer back and forth, he revealed the Cortex M0 blocks had been built on a sheet of plastic, using plastic transistors instead of silicon.

ARM's CTO Mike Muller showing plastic SoCs

ARM's CTO Mike Muller showing plastic SoCs

"It's pretty slow, it's nMOS, we haven't got to CMOS yet, so its power dissipation is not the best, but it's about the thickness of cling film," Muller added, hinting that such designs could be used to run very low power IoT applications integrated into packaging.

The CTO then shared his expectations of Moore's Law for imprint technology, the technology used to implement these circuits in plastic, establishing a parallel with the move from CDs, to DVDs to Blu-Ray as finer imprint resolutions are achieved. The roadmap read as if a Cortex-A5 would be next in line by 2020 with sub-micron design rules.

Moore's Law for imprint technology

ARM's CTO doesn't see plastic electronics competing with silicon, but he confirmed ARM's desire to start all over again with plastic electronics.

Of course, Muller doesn't see plastic electronics compete with silicon (as on a performance level, plastic would always be about 20 years behind he commented), but he confirmed ARM's appetence to start all over again with plastic electronics, as it could open up new applications for IoT and vastly expand its licensing model.

This is a natural progression from ARM's recent investments in PragmatIC Printing, a company developing imprint technology for plastic electronics.

Reached over the phone, PragmatIC Printing's CEO Scott White confirmed that the roadmap was representative of his company's efforts to shrink circuits, though, the timescale was not so clear cut according to him, depending on resources and business drivers.

ARM is clearly focusing on digital implementations, but with imprint technology, you could have side by side and at no extra cost, larger analogue parts complementing finer digital blocks. PragmatIC Printing is busy developing a library of analogue components too, quite elementary for now, but something it hopes to widen over time.

So in the hope of expanding its licensing business to analogue- and sensor-driven plastic IoT applications, would ARM start to mix analogue and digital IP in its offering?

The future will tell.

- Julien Happich
??EE Times Europe

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