Cost is a major barrier when an electronic design company starts to consider developing a custom SoC for a particular market segment. But what if there was a way to lower the development cost, or even get to an SoC proof of concept for no cost except of course for your engineering expenses? That value proposition caught my attention immediately so I attended a webinar hosted by ARM (part of Softbank) and Tanner EDA (part of Mentor Graphics, soon to be part of Siemens) on March 28th to see if there was any catch involved.
Phil Burr from ARM was up first and he was able to categorize who is designing new SoCs today into three segments:
ARM sees seven industries driving new SoC development:
- Smart lighting
- Building automation
Companies that choose the SoC route can expect benefits like an 85% reduction in PCB area compared to component designs, a 90% reduction in their BOM, being different from other competitors, being able to protect their IP because the SoC is not using easily bought components from a parts catalog, and finally an easier way to control the supply chain. The folks at ARM have responded to these market conditions by creating something called the Cortex-M0 DesignStart which lets you integrate your own semiconductor IP with the popular 32 bit processor Cortex-M0, along with a system design kit. If all you need to do is to show proof of concept then you can do a virtual design for free. Two other options from ARM are using their FPGA prototype system for $995, or buying a license for the Cortex-M0 along with SDK, Keil MDK and support for $40K:
The Cortex-M0 is the most compact 32 bit processor offered by ARM, which also means lower costs to designers. Code density with the Cortex-M is actually better than competitor’s 8 and 16 bit offerings as measured with CoreMark code, giving you lower power consumption and smaller flash size:
So with DesignStart you get the processor IP from ARM, evaluation EDA tools from Mentor Graphics and if needed there are design partner services that are recommended and vetted by ARM (Open-Silicon, sondrel, SOC Solutions, hdl Design House, e-infochips, ADT). For process nodes you can choose to fab your ARM-based SOC at foundries across a wide range like 350nm all the way down to 28nm. Using shared wafers you can get test chips produced in 180nm for as little as $16K, so think affordable.
Related blog – IoT Device Designers Get Help from ARMv8-M Cores
Next up in the webinar was Jeff Miller from Tanner EDA and he shared how their company started way back in 1988 and has customers doing both AMS and MEMS designs. Mentor acquired Tanner in 2015, and it is one of the few EDA mergers that is still happily functioning quite well. Customers of Tanner EDA include JPL (image sensors on the Mars rovers), FLIR, Knowles, Proteus, NeuroPace and Second Sight. Jeff talked about some characteristics of IoT designs, like: High volume, low cost, small physical size, and low power.
One IoT design example shared was from Swindon Silicon Systems with their Tire Pressure Measurement System (TPMS) that has shipped 100’s of millions units. They used two dies combined into a single package which is then placed inside of an auto tire to measure tire pressure, then send that data by RF to the car. The pressure sensor is designed as a MEMS and occupies one chip, then the second chip does the RF transmission, analog, ADC, and digital control:
Typical building blocks for an IoT device are shown below:
Mentor Graphics has three categories of software to help in the design of an IoT device:
- Tanner EDA
- Embedded Software
- Printed circuit board
Related blog – Managing the IoT
Focusing on the Tanner EDA offering, there are several tools for both the front-end and back-end of an Analog Mixed-Signal design:
For the grand finale Jeff demonstrated how an ADC block found in most IoT devices could be entered using the schematic capture tool (S-Edit), simulated the ADC with a circuit simulator (T-Spice), connected a custom block to the AMBA peripheral bus, wrote some test firmware in C code using the Keil IDE, finally simulated the ARM Cortex-M0 with the test firmware and the custom ADC block. Here’s a block diagram of the demo design:
Analog waveform results show up in the Tanner EDA viewer, while digital results show up in the ModelSim tool:
Instead of starting from scratch to create your next IoT design project that needs a processor and AMS blocks, you can instead consider using the approach offered by ARM and Tanner EDA to quickly get to your IoT proof of concept at very low to no extra costs, outside of the engineering time. Enjoy getting a head start because Tanner EDA includes all of their demo files shown in the webinar. If you are short on engineering experience, then talk to one of the ARM recommended design partners to get started.