From Living Faster to Living Better; Innovations in the “More than Moore” era

Author: Rene Penning de Vries
CTO, NXP Semiconductors
For decades semiconductor developments have broadly conformed to Moore’s Law about the pace of productivity gains. This led to extremely fast digital processors, increases in bandwidth and huge memory that has enabled enormous productivity increases in PCs, mobile phones and other applications demanding heavy data traffic and storage. However, the economics of the IC industry as well as developments in society are creating a paradigm shift in the semiconductor world.

The semiconductor industry is confronted with sky-rocketing cost levels for System-On-Chip development in advanced CMOS technology, while the continual shrinking of physical dimensions will eventually cause Moore’s Law to come to an end.

At the same time, the added value perceived by consumer demand shows an acceleration of interest in new smart products and areas such as medical devices, food safety, transportation and smart, green solutions rather than just the fastest or smallest consumer electronics.

These applications – to name a few – are typically made possible by integrating existing CMOS technologies with “More-than-Moore” technologies, like Analog/Mixed-Signal, High-Voltage, and Ultra-Low-Power. This shift towards multiple-technology devices will also have a far-reaching impact on design and architecture methodologies, modelling and characterization, and system architecture.
The paradigm shift from generic CMOS-driven technology convergence towards technology diversification provides semiconductor manufacturers with new means for differentiation and - much welcomed-new business initiatives.

A paradigm shift from productivity to quality-of-life
As a relatively young industry, the drive for semiconductor device manufacturers has historically been firmly on achieving productivity gain, since Moore’s Law first predicted the number of transistors on a given area of silicon would double every 18 months. This law has held true ever since and the productivity ratio has also driven transistor costs down, to a point where an affordable system-on-chip for consumer applications today may contain hundreds of millions of transistors.

Are we now witnessing the end of Moore’s Law? The answer to that must be no, but just as transistor density in production has increased, so too has the cost of developing the process that enables it. The result is that the most cost-effective IC solution today is no longer by default based on the smallest (and most expensive) CMOS technology available.

A parallel in aviation mirrors this shift from performance to economics driven development. After decades of speed increase of planes, the revolutionary Concorde failed to become the new standard for passenger transportation through the air, despite its record-breaking top speed of around 2000 km/hour. The ability to travel from Paris to New York in only three hours was expected to turn the Concorde into the new standard. But it appeared that economic rules prevailed over sheer performance: extreme fuel consumption caused fares to rise to unacceptable levels, and the Concorde ended up in the museum.

The average speed in aviation found its economic equilibrium at around 1000 Km/hour, a level unchanged for many years now.
Did it mean the end of innovation in aviation? On the contrary the scope of innovation was just redirected to add other value to passengers, crew, and airlines than just speed. Planes became much safer, more comfortable, more cost effective, more fuel efficient, and less noisy.

A similar process could be foreseen in the semiconductor industry, where the scope of innovation will shift from productivity to quality-of-life gain. As in aviation: There’s more to life than speed.

So, Moore’s Law, which dominated process technology in semiconductors for decades, will remain in a limited number of high volume areas. But it may cease to exist the moment the boundaries of physical ability or economical feasibility are achieved.

Creating customised solutions
Today’s increasingly sophisticated markets demand solutions optimised for specific applications. In turn this promotes the pace of innovation, providing OEMs with more opportunity for differentiation. Early collaboration also ensures flawless integration of the IC in OEM products, shortening development time and costs, and enabling early market access.

Here are some more examples of how a More-than-Moore approach is already delivering technology developments that offer interesting business opportunities and adding value to people’s daily life.

Switching from incandescent lamps to compact fluorescent (CFL) or tube light (TL) can save up to 80% of the electricity used for lighting, with some forward-thinking countries going as far as introducing a complete ban on the sale of incandescent lamps.

Traditionally, the driver electronics for CFL and TL have used discrete power components, but several pressures are ushering in integrated solutions. Today there is a need for intelligent control in each fitting, linking ambient illumination and occupancy detection, with wireless communication and control becoming important. In the low cost CFL market, IC technology is attractive for reducing waste, size and longevity.

LEDs promise lighting solutions that are small, adaptable, energy-saving, controllable in both color and intensity, and with a long life-time. The widespread adoption of LED lighting is determined by the quality of low-cost, highly integrated driver electronics.
Other application areas include LED flash lights for mobile applications, and LED backlight dimming techniques used in LCD-TVs enabling huge energy savings (>50%).

Ultra-Low-Power for medical applications
Medical electronics is one of the fastest growing areas of semiconductor development. Ultra-low-power solutions based on magnetic induction radio technology and CoolFlux DSP, form the basis of the latest hearing aid products. Today chips support a data rate of up to 298 kbps and bi-directional communication, enabling novel applications such as stereo audio streaming and binaural processing. Use of a hub allows easy and wireless connectivity of an MP3 player or mobile phone to the hearing aid.

Other ultra-low power medical applications include implanted sensors that monitor vital body functions, devices for applications in neurostimulation and pain management, and cardiac rhythm management devices. These are all good examples of More-than-Moore technologies enabling a better life rather than just a faster one.

Intelligent Car Keys
Today’s car keys allow for immobilization and for remote access through one-way communication. The latest developments have turned car keys into systems combining many functions and features. Equipped with LEDs or a display and two-way communication functionality, within the operating range the car owner can remotely check the status of the vehicle, for example locked or unlocked.

A standardized interface in the key compliant to Near-Field Communication technology will enable further functionality. For example, the car location, fuel level or tyre pressure can be displayed by NFC mobile phones.

The name of the game remains: innovation
Realizing that innovation continues to fuel the semiconductor industry, either in advanced CMOS SoCs, or in the upcoming More-than-Moore applications, the industry is now being challenged to adopt innovation strategies to the changed economic realities. Rather than following straight lines in CMOS roadmaps, innovation will be determined by the creativity to combine existing and new technologies into smart customer-tailored solutions. The trend towards multi-technology (More-than-Moore) applications helps in this respect, as it does not require the extremely expensive advanced CMOS development costs.

Innovation will continue to be the fundamental prerequisite for success in semiconductors, but it is no longer a single track path. Those companies that embrace this and free themselves from the endless pursuit of speed without consideration for cost or power limits have the opportunity to create technology that will be lucrative for themselves and ultimately enhance society.
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