Discover how replacing your existing PCB with an ASIC can reduce your overall production costs, increase the efficiency and reliability of your system, and more:
Replacing a printed circuit board (PCB) full of discrete parts with an application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) has always been an excellent way to reduce system and production costs. An ASIC can provide significant unit price savings over the same function implemented with discrete components on a PCB. This savings simply considers the package and silicon inefficiencies of implementing a function with several discrete components. Further system or product savings are achieved because an ASIC:
- reduces the number of parts that need be inventoried at the production factory
- PCB area is reduced
- the variety and quantity of pick and place machines is reduced
- pick and place times are reduced
- assembly and soldering profiles are simplified
ASICs require custom development and tooling. These costs are referred to as Non-Recurring-Engineering or NRE charges. Historically, ASIC NREs have been quite expensive and are often one million dollars or more. Triad’s reconfigurable ASIC approach reduces development costs by 70% or more. The savings afforded by Triad’s solution allows our customers to achieve return on investment (ROI) for ASIC integration at significantly lower production volumes than obtainable from other custom IC providers.
Many applications demand significant electronics integration before the product concept can be considered a viable product. ASIC integration is a proven means of reducing a products Size, Weight and Power or SWaP as it is often referred to in the defense industry.
Military projects place a premium on reducing the SWaP of a product. Such projects often talk about a “Soldier Load” or the amount of equipment a combat soldier can effectively carry. In such applications, the decision is often between “batteries and bullets.” Electronics are critical for success on today’s battlefield and reducing the SWaP of these products can have a positive impact on the combat effectiveness of a soldier. It is not just combat soldiers where SWaP is of prime importance. Many defense industry applications such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), portable medical units, and communication equipment must get smaller, lighter and more power efficient to allow their users to carryout the mission-critical activities of today’s military.
SWaP requirements are increasing across many markets. In the aerospace market, putting one pound of satellite electronics into low earth orbit (LEO) costs $10,000. Reducing SWaP in such applications is always a major project goal.
Medical products often cannot even start the earliest of trials without significant integration. Medical electronics for products like: neurological stimulation, cardiac monitoring, pulse oximetry and EEG are striving for advanced miniaturization. Electronics for human wearable instruments and implantable devices must be small, comfortable, light and they need to consume minuscule amounts of power. Understandably, people simply will not tolerate large, heavy and intrusive devices on or in their bodies.
The lines between fitness products, lifestyle improvement, convenience and consumer wellness are merging in the wearable technology area. Products that would have five years ago have been considered clinical grade are being proposed as wearable consumer health products. These products fuse together EEG, EKG, pulse oximetry, blood pressure, galvanic skin resistance, motion sensing into one tiny wearable device. All of these physiological measurements require precision analog functions that without significant ASIC integration would require a large, heavy and power hungry PCB solution. The wearable tech market is fast-paced with new features emerging at a rapid pace. ASIC integration is a means to address the SWaP requirements of these markets. Traditional ASIC development has been slow and expensive making it difficult to quickly innovate and stay ahead of emerging demands in such markets. Triad’s reconfigurable mixed signal ASIC solutions enable product teams to achieve their SWaP goals and rapidly create derivative ASIC solutions to address emerging market requirements.
Custom IC integration provides opportunities and challenges with regards to system noise reduction. Placing sensitive analog circuits on the same CMOS substrate with noisy digital circuits represents a design challenge. On the other hand, the flexibility of design choices within a custom ASIC provides for great opportunities to reduce system noise both from a generated noise and noise susceptibility perspective. Reducing a large PCB circuit of discrete components into a small IC greatly simplifies shielding requirements. Reducing circuits into a custom chip also reduces PCB trace lengths that can act as antenna both for the radiating and receiving of noise.
Once ASIC integration is chosen, several best practice methods should be followed to reduce noise sources and improve the noise immunity of circuits internal to the ASIC.
The use of differential analog circuits improves common-mode noise rejection and makes such circuits less susceptible to power and substrate noise. Differential circuits are somewhat larger than equivalent single-ended circuits and the increased area and routing complexity for a PCB implementation can be expensive. Within a custom IC, differential circuits can be tightly packed and often provide an optimal balance between die size, noise immunity and overall circuit performance.
Custom ICs can address the entire system problem. This is often more difficult at the discrete PCB level because designers are stuck with the components that can be obtained from standard product manufacturers. Inside an ASIC, each block can be optimized to provide just the analog signal bandwidth necessary. Limiting bandwidth of circuits also limits the amount of out of band noise that will be passed through the signal chain. Often EMI evaluations cannot be made until very late in the project after the electronics, PCB and mechanical assembly have all been put together. Via reconfigurable ASICs allow systems designers to make fast and affordable changes to circuits inside an ASIC to limit or change bandwidths to address EMI compliance and certification. Traditional full-custom-only ASICs require six months to change. Such a delay is not an option for most projects. Since Triad’s reconfigurable ASICs can be modified with a single mask layer change, such bandwidth limiting circuit modifications can be re-fabricated in four weeks. Addressing such system issues quickly with the ASIC can avoid expensive and time consuming mechanical shielding additions.
On-Chip Power Decoupling
A custom ASIC will need PCB level decoupling capacitors to smooth out power and reference signals routed to the ASIC. Inside the IC, power decoupling capacitors can have a significant impact on noise performance. Anywhere that there are unused circuits it is a good idea to liberally place decoupling capacitors. Unique to Triad’s patented via reconfigurable approach is the ability to add decoupling capacitors with via changes. This robust approach to decoupling has proven very effective at achieving low noise system solutions for Triad’s customers.
Signal Shielding and Separation
Sensitive analog signals should be physically placed away from noise digital signals. Differential signals should be routed in a symmetrical and uniform pattern. Digital signals should be prevented from passing through sensitive analog regions. The ASIC should support shielding of sensitive analog signals.
Triad’s approach to shielding and separation utilizes patented hardware and EDA software to realize circuits that are appropriately shielded and isolated. Triad’s mixed-signal aware place and route tool, ViaPath(tm), understands differential routing, keep out areas, thick metal constraints and shielding. Circuits and routing can be automatically and manually configured in the Triad flow shield, separate and isolate sensitive circuits. This level of control affords significant on-chip noise reduction opportunities.
ASICs are an ideal way to improve the overall performance of a system and is closely related to SWaP. Often a system has a certain figure of merit (FOM) requirement that looks something like “achieve a 85 dB signal to noise ratio (SNR) at a sample rate of 100kSPS while consuming no more than X milli-watts.” It is the combination of these requirements that can often be best addressed by an ASIC solution. The 85 dB SNR specification is a system spec that must be considered for the entire signal chain.
Often an analog signal chain will include a low noise amplifier (LNA) input stage, a programmable gain stage, anti-aliasing filter, analog to digital converter, some local digital signal process and a serial communication link. Within an ASIC, the design team has control over each of the signal blocks. The FOM performance goal for the ASIC and the system can be considered for the overall signal chain and trade-offs tried and verified with each signal block.
This approach to performance improvement allows an ASIC implementation to attain such FOM goals because power, noise, bandwidth, slew rate and a variety of other trade-offs can be evaluated and optimized. This approach is a vast improvement over the discrete PCB approach where the designer is forced into using “black box” circuit elements that severely restrict the designer’s ability to optimize the performance of the combined signal chain.
Somewhat related to the benefit of “Improve Performance”, an ASIC is very good at optimizing the entire system. An ASIC, as the name application specific implies, allows the designer to create a solution that takes into account the performance and optimization of the complete system. For example, power management is an increasingly critical and complex design area for many products. Increasing digital integration is driving System-on-a-Chip (SOC) solutions to smaller and smaller process nodes.
These deep submicron (DSM) semiconductor nodes come with lower breakdown and operating voltages. On the other hand, these systems are also integrating a variety of LED and sensors interfaces that tend to need higher and higher voltages for maximum efficiency. In today’s designs it is not uncommon to need several switching regulators, linear regulators, low dropout (LDO) regulators, boost converters, and precision voltage references.
Optimizing the size, power consumption, efficiency and cost of power management solutions is critical to the success of many products. For many applications, leaving the power management functions in the form of a discrete PCB implementation is too costly from a SWaP and price perspective. Custom Power management ICs, or PMICs, allow the system designer to optimize the performance of not just the ASIC but the entire system. These optimization can include: peak, idle and average power efficiency, cost optimization, under voltage and over voltage monitor and corrective actions, and detailed power on and off sequencing. Optimizing all of the above parameters outside of an ASIC is not very fruitful because standard power management ICs lack the controls necessary to orchestrate an optimal system solution. For example, when you finally know your systems idle, average, peak and deep sleep power requirements you can optimally size the power FETs for the system.
Unused FET area is expensive in a complex PMIC and leads to inefficiency. Likewise, in an ASIC the system architect has complete control over sequencing of supplies however exotic or specialized the requirements of a particular design might be. Unfortunately, power management is one of the last areas of the design that can be finalized because power requirements tend to fluctuate until the rest of the design has been finalized. Therefore, traditional full-custom PMIC development has had trouble matching the time-to-market needs of many customers.
What designers need is a what to cost effectively optimize the system and retain the ability to make changes quickly and inexpensively later in the development cycle. Triad’s reconfigurable mixed-signal PMIC solutions provide exact such a combination of optimization and flexibility. A reconfigurable PMIC designed for your product can be quickly (4-weeks) changed to adapt to unforeseen project requirements.
Many applications including commercial aircraft, space, military avionics and automotive under hood have demanding reliability requirements. There are many failure mechanisms for electronics in such environments. For products that are exposed to temperature cycling, solder joint fatigue can be a major source of product wear out and failure. Reducing the number of solder joints in a product has proven to be an excellent way to improve a product’s reliability. ASIC integration replaces a board full of discrete components, PCB traces and solder joints with a single IC. This integration greatly reduces the number of solder joint fatigue and failure points. For high reliability environments, Triad offers extensive qualification and life testing including:
- Highly Accelerated Life Test (HALT)
- Highly Accelerated Stress Test (HAST)
- Thermal cycling
(Refer to Triad’s Quality section for detailed information about our extensive qualification options.)
Reducing a board full of discrete components into a single IC improves the manufacture-ability of a part:
- Reduces pick and place requirements
- Shortens pick and place time
- Relaxes soldering and thermal profiles
- Reduces manufacturing inventory mix requirements
- Increases the number of contract manufacturers (CMs) capable of making the – product
- Faster and less expensive to replicate and scale production lines as product sales increase
It is more difficult to reverse engineer an ASIC than it is to reverse engineer a discrete PCB design. It is not impossible to reverse engineer an ASIC but it is a tedious, complex and expensive proposition compared to the relatively straightforward task of determining a circuit configuration and schematic from a printed circuit board. Many customers with unique hardware intellectual property (IP) protect their ideas inside custom ASICs.
ASICs are also ideal for preventing grey market cloning of a product. Many companies use outsourced contract manufacturers (CMs) to assembly the products. Unfortunately, sometimes the CM will produce the required quota of products for the customer during one shift while producing illegal grey market clones of the product for a different unauthorized customer. These clones are then distributed and sold against the original customer’s design. It is very difficult to prevent the cloning of a design built form off-the-shelf standard devices. Since there is no way to track how many products the CM actually built cloning is difficult to detect. On the other hand, a design containing a custom ASIC is very difficult to clone. Since one customer consigns their unique ASIC to the CM for manufacturing there is a one-to-one relationship between the number of ASICs consumed and the number of products built. The custom ASIC asks a lock preventing authorized manufacture of the customer’s product.
It is tempting to get your custom ASIC developed for Free. Unfortunately, your free ASIC development often comes at a considerable cost to your competitiveness. Major semiconductor companies may offer to develop your custom IC for little or no NRE. In exchange for this free development, the IC company will expect to be able to sell your ASIC as a standard product to others including your competition. This approach to IC development results in major IP dilution with your hard earned domain expertise now being made available to your competition in the form of a standard product. Triad’s does not make standard products. We are focused on protecting your IP and your competitive advantage. Your ASIC will always be your ASIC. We will not resell your ASIC or IP to others.
Semiconductor obsolescence is a major problem for many of today’s long lived electronics products. Manufacturers regularly discontinue or obsolete a particular standard product or custom ASIC. Triad’s reconfigurable ASIC solutions offer a cost effective and timely means of replacing a part that has gone end-of-life (EOL). Triad supports a range of obsolescence replacement strategies including:
- One-for-One Form-Fit-and-Function Replacement
- Many-to-One Replacement
- Monolithic MCM™
One-for-One Replacement ASIC
A one-for-one replacement involves creating a new ASIC device that performs the same as the original IC electrically, resides in the same type of IC package and has an identical pin out as the original device. This type of replacement is often referred to as a form-fit-and-function replacement. Replacing a one-for-one replacement can be used to minimize re-qualification of efforts. The new part is qualified against the requirements of the original part. Typically, only minimal re-qualification of the module or board is required after such a substitution. This types of replacements are often attractive in medical, defense, and industrial safety applications where system-level qualification can be expensive and time consuming.
Many-to-One Replacement ASIC
If one part goes obsolete on a module, it may be only a matter of time before other parts go obsolete. Faced with a progression of end-of-life IC announcements, some design teams opt to replace multiple components with a single ASIC in a many-to-one migration. This approach does require more system-level re-qualification than a one-for-one replacement ASIC but can be the least expensive approach to address an ongoing obsolescence problem. This approach also allows the design team to refresh the product by adding new features to the system by the introduction of the new ASIC.
An MCM is a multi-chip-module. Application utilize an MCM as a way to achieve integration without going to a complete ASIC integration. An MCM contains multiple known-good bare die that are bonded to a substrate and the substrate is then bonded to package pins. On the outside, the packaged part looks like an custom ASIC. Inside the package, the solution looks like a miniature printed circuit board full of interconnected bare die. When one of the bare die in the MCM goes obsolete the entire MCM is at risk of going EOL. One approach is to replace the EOL die with a one-for-one ASIC replacement. This approach solves the immediate EOL issue but still leaves the MCM susceptible to obsolescence from one of the other die in the assembly. Another approach is to combine the multiple die of the MCM into a many-to-one ASIC that replaces the contents of the MCM with a monolithic solution that we call a Monolithic MCM(tm). Triad’s reconfigurable ASICs can economically support lower production volumes making them an attractive candidate for such applications.
Analog and mixed-signal ASIC integration delivers a significant set of benefits that enable design teams to differentiate their products and protect their competitive advantage.