The introduction of the Arduino heralded the huge growth and interest in MCU based designs by people who could never before easily put together the hardware and software system required for implementation of their ideas. I remember the first time I saw the Arduino in use. I was at a talk on how a system for controlling propane jet solenoids for an art project had been put together in a matter of a few days on site at an art installation. Seeing how easily the presenter was able to connect the devices to a user interface and write the firmware got my immediate attention. This was around 2008.
The Arduino project has grown from a few open source developers into major initiatives at companies like ARM, Freescale, ST, Atmel and many others. Arduinos have moved from the Atmel AVR based processors to ARM based processors, very often using the Cortex-M0. Other open platforms have evolved too, for instance the ARM mbed initiative. What all this has done is enable a huge wave of innovation, allowing people to get their ideas implemented quickly and at low cost, lowering the barriers to product development.
Unfortunately, up until now, people who wanted to go to the next level and get their products into custom SOC’s were out of luck. Companies whose products are implemented on PCB’s with SMD’s for each separate component could benefit hugely from the advantages of a custom SOC. Their products would be much smaller and could fit into wearable size enclosures. Power consumption would be reduced, reliability would go up, and assembly and PCB costs would go down. The alternative today is to buy standard parts and solder them up, but often compromises are made with off the shelf parts in terms of functionality and form factor.
ARM has just announced a revolutionary new initiative to bring custom SOC’s within reach of system and product designers that would have never been able to take advantage of their benefits. ARM is making its popular low power 32-bit Cortex M0 available for download, along with the design kit and three months of free access to the ARM Keil MDK development tool. With this comes system IP, peripherals, test bench and software. There is even an option to buy a FPGA board for under $1,000 to aid in prototyping.
Once it’s time to move to the next stage of product development, a license to manufacture products containing the Cortex-M0 can be purchased with an easy to buy $40,000 IP license from ARM. The Cortex-M0 is a very popular processor for IoT, mobile and wearable applications. It is extremely low power yet offers 32-bit computing power.
Despite this radically different technology access and licensing model if there is still concern about how to actually implement an SOC, ARM is further enabling SOC development by linking its Design House partners with product developers. Partners like Brite, Dream Chip, S3 Group, Open-Silicon and others, offer turnkey development as well as consultancy or help for custom SOC development. There is also cooperation with a large number of foundries, such as licensing models that include ARM IP costs as a minimal add-on in the foundry fabrication cost.
This is a game changer for people who have product ideas but cannot effectively implement them without a custom SOC. We saw a proliferation of design ideas and collateral technology spin offs from the Arduino. One notable example are 3D printers, most of which have a controller board descended from the Arduino. In the same vein this initiative from ARM will continue the democratization of technology that the maker movement started. Only now, even more complex and traditionally more difficult design options will be available to a larger audience.