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Outlook 2013: The future beckons

Back in 1965, Gordon Moore realised the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every year since 1958. He saw no reason why that shouldn't continue to happen 'for at least 10 years'.

That observation has evolved into Moore's Law, which says the number of transistors per unit area of silicon doubles every 18 months. The Law has developed a life of its own: from being an observation on what had happened and what might, semiconductor manufacturers now use it as the engine which drives the development of their processes. And, almost as regularly as clockwork, technology moves forward to the next node.

It seems almost impossible that leading edge manufacturers are now working at the 20nm node; even 15 years ago, we were marvelling at devices being made on a 0.35µm (350nm) process. And yet it's happening.

As well as working on ever smaller processes, the industry is now looking at manufacturing using 450mm wafers. According to TSMC, it's the only way it can make the economics work; certainly at 20nm and beyond.

While 450mm manufacturing is only being pursued by two or three leading companies, a school of thought exists that suggests Europe should invest $3billion to get in on the action.

A report produced for the European Commission says 450mm manufacturing will define the geographical locations of the next (and perhaps final) 10 to 15 most advanced semiconductor production areas worldwide and that the investment would protect Europe's equipment and materials industry and advanced research centres.

So what will leading manufacturers do at the 20nm node and what benefits will that bring? The FPGA sector is traditionally an early adopter and the two leading companies are pursuing 3d technology, which might bring true system integration – rather than system in a package – in the next few years. Alongside integration, FPGAs are helping designers deal with such issues as security, power and reliability.

While 3d technology might become available in the near term, the question remains of whether such products can be designed. But it's not just 3d integration; there remain issues regarding the use of third party IP. Synopsys admits companies must accelerate their innovation to prosper – and they expect the same from their EDA, IP and services partners. While companies like Synopsys continue to launch new tools, one FPGA company says EDA support is emerging 'at best'. Reading between the lines, there's a lot of work to be done before these true 3d integrated systems can be created.

Analogue manufacturers, although working several generations behind the leading edge, face similar problems. Smaller products leave less space for power conversion components, which are critical to extended battery life. According to Micrel, this leaves engineers two options – eliminate components or reduce their size. The solution, it believes, is to move beyond discrete components to the development of fully integrated solutions that meet the designer's specific system requirements.

But not all products need an FPGA at their heart. Traditionally, the microcontroller is the 'go to' device for embedded system designers. Until recently, the majority of designers would have chosen an 8bit microcontroller (mcu); anything else would have been too powerful for their application. However, as graphical interfaces become more powerful and systems are required to be more capable, the days of the 8bit mcu are becoming numbered.

While other 32bit cores are available, it's the ARM Cortex-M range which appears to have captured the imagination of mcu developers. ARM is pushing at both ends of the spectrum – with the Cortex-M4, it's addressing digital signal control applications, but the recent launch of the Cortex-M0+ core is providing much of the impetus for companies such as Freescale and NXP to develop mcus which provide 32bit functionality at 8bit prices.

Is it the beginning of the end for 8bit mcus? Geoff Lees, vp of Freescale's industrial and multimarket mcu business, said: "Unless a customer can make a huge business case to stay with 8bit, we'll be recommending M0+ based mcus in the future."

Microcontrollers will also play a central role in the development of the 'Internet of Things' – the latest way to describe machine to machine (M2M) communications. We've been talking about M2M for about a decade now, but the technology is only now starting to take off, enabled by more powerful, less costly communications and by the emergence of the cloud as a viable tool.

A couple of years ago, Ericsson estimated that 50billion devices would be connected by the end of this decade. While the general opinion is that figure is optimistic, many people expect there to be 20bn devices talking to each other by then.

The possibilities are, it seems, endless. There are 'obvious' applications for M2M, such as logistics. But the opportunities come when the less obvious applications are explored. Elsewhere in this issue, we discuss the possibility of the connected cow; communications technology can be used to relay the animal's vital statistics to the farmer. And white space communications are set to take advantage of the spectrum recently vacated by analogue tv transmissions.

Then there's the question of where products are made. Not too long ago, it was a 'no brainer' to send designs for manufacture to Asia. But those days have gone; the UK now has a competitive electronics manufacturing industry and has even begun to win the large orders that would have been placed elsewhere without a second thought.

One example is element 14's decision to make 300,000 Raspberry Pis in South Wales; something that wouldn't have happened before.

Phil Inness, chair of Intellect's Electronic Manufacturing Services Association said: "The UK is maturing into a world class electronic manufacturing environment with collaborative working across the supply chain and many continuous improvement initiatives in place. Variations in exchange rates, increases in the offshore costs, uncertainties over IP and an increased awareness of counterfeit avoidance, means UK manufacturing is increasingly attractive."

Design practices are changing. The Raspberry Pi is just one catalyst; although intended to get young people interested in programming, engineers of all ages are finding new uses for the board. Similarly, the Arduino and Beagleboard environments – along with development environments created by electronics distributors – are allowing designers to be more innovative.

Recognising this, distributors, such as RS Components, are developing online resources to help their customers get from concept to creation as quickly as possible.

So what shape is the UK electronics design community in? A soon to be published report will show the sector is not only world class, but also makes a significant contribution to the UK's economy and to employment.

The Electronic Systems: Challenges and Opportunities report is being led by Jamie Urquhart, once ARM'S chief operating officer. "The UK has a broad spread of companies which are invisible, but whose technology appears in exciting products. The report gives the opportunity to take a longer term view."

Derek Boyd, chief executive of trade association nmi, added: "The UK has a competitive, leading edge industrial sector, but it is a sector which could do even better. Our work is about making a fit industry fitter and about making the industry take responsibility for its future."

And where does that future lie? Trade association Intellect believes the UK's electronics community should capitalise on the 'megatrends' where electronics plays a vital role. It believes UK electronics companies have opportunities in such markets as mobile technology, electric vehicles, smart infrastructure and medical/assisted living equipment.

Author
Graham Pitcher

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