Just over a year ago, ARM® announced free access to the Cortex™-M0 processor in the ARM DesignStart™ portal. Since then, hundreds of designers have downloaded the Cortex-M0 package to understand how the Cortex-M0 and the associated system IP can be used to create custom SoCs.
A significant number of these designers have then moved on to the commercial phase of their development to create SoCs. These companies have benefited from the low-cost ($40k), simplified, fast-track access to the Cortex-M0, system design kit, software tools and support that ARM offers for commercial use.
So why all of the interest? We can put this down to a number of factors:
Many OEMs and product developers are seeing the benefits that a custom SoC can offer. OEMs can integrate a swathe of discrete functions into one SoC – typically ‘mopping up’ a range of analog and digital functionality to lower cost, decrease PCB area and increase reliability. These savings can be significant – a 95% saving in a bill of materials cannot be overlooked! As an example, Cortex-M0 has been applied to create a custom controller SoC for white goods. This has enabled the manufacturer to make significant savings and differentiate their end product by adding additional features.
It will be of no surprise that processing capability continues to be added to analog components. Being able to automatically calibrate analog components improves accuracy and performance. Not only is this essential at the manufacturing stage, continual calibration boosts performance throughout the life of product and even extends it.
Previously, trimming had to be performed manually during the manufacture of the sensor equipment. With smart analog, the configuration of the analog circuits are controlled automatically by the CPU. By continuing to measure and trim, long-term sensor drift can be automatically corrected for.
A good example is a simple street light sensor – sensors become obscured by dirt and hence turn on the light too early. In addition, the light lens itself becomes obscured and the effective light becomes dimmer overtime. Lights can therefore be automatically “turned down” when the lens is clear, and turned up as the lens becomes more opaque.
Those that follow press articles on silicon manufacturing will have in their minds that silicon manufacturing costs are rapidly increasing. Whilst this may be true for the very latest silicon process nodes, it is not true for the more mature nodes where prices continue to fall. Many now consider silicon at these mature nodes to be “free”. Most small custom SoCs are built on much more mature nodes (180nm, 90nm and 65nm) – indeed, these larger geometries can offer low-leakage benefits not seen in more advanced nodes where there is a greater emphasis on performance.
Reusable IP continues to increase, making this even more accessible for custom SoCs. ARM is leading the way with its DesignStart programme and $40k licensing package for the Cortex-M0.
Finally there are many design services companies who have the skills and experience to help in SoC development. Services can range from complete turnkey development to reactive help and support. To help in choosing a design partner, ARM has created its ARM Approved Design Services programme, which has audited a small number of design partners around the globe, so that customers can use these companies with confidence, knowing that they have passed robust quality, skill, experience, and financial audits.
If you are thinking about creating your own SoC, then get in touch, visit designstart.arm.com to find out more.