Why flexible semiconductors are the future of connectivity
If you’ve been reading the tech press for as long as I have, you’ll know that the Internet of Everything (IoE) has been heralded as the Next Big Thing for quite some time now.
Going beyond the well-established Internet of Things (IoT), the IoE anticipates an ecosystem of 360-degree intelligence, where anything and everything will be equipped to gather data. Rather than simple machine-to-machine communication, interaction will occur across four broad categories: people, data, processes and things.
While this promises a connected world with countless opportunities for optimisation and efficiency, we need to be mindful of how we achieve that level of connectivity.
Recent years have seen shortages of exactly the kind of chip that’s needed to add intelligence almost everywhere: not the powerful, all-singing, all-dancing silicon chips that power top-end devices, but chips with just enough performance and complexity to get the small jobs done. Chips of a similar complexity to those we were making when we founded Arm back in 1990 – over three decades ago!
There is also a growing awareness of technology’s impact on the planet, and silicon manufacture hasn’t come up smelling of roses. While silicon fabs are now transitioning to renewable energy and looking to recycle wastewater, thanks to the use of environmentally unfriendly gases and chemicals, chip manufacture still makes up the larger part of the carbon emissions of any given device.
So how can we balance the increasing demand for connectivity with the imperative to reduce the environmental impact of the underlying technology?
A flexible alternative to silicon
The answer may lie in flexible semiconductors, such as thin-film transistors (TFTs).
The exciting thing about TFTs is that their manufacturing process eliminates many of the resource-intensive production processes of silicon manufacturing – and typically uses just a fraction of the power and water.
And when you factor in price (they can be fabricated at significantly lower cost than silicon) and form factor (they’re flexible!) – two factors that open up a whole host of use cases that are beyond a typical silicon chip – you can see that they become very exciting indeed.
In fact, I’m so sure that this technology has an exciting future that I – along with several of my colleagues from Arm Research – have joined Pragmatic to help further its development.
The first time I encountered Pragmatic was back in 2013, when Arm’s Chief Technical Officer asked us to look into the possibility of building a low-cost, Arm-based microcontroller using TFTs on a flexible substrate.
It was an exciting project, but quite ambitious, even for state-of-the-art flexible electronics of the time. Undaunted, the Arm Research team began working with Pragmatic to build some simple prototype circuits that turned out to be very successful, so we made the bold decision to have a go at building ‘PlasticARM’.
Unfortunately, back in 2015, the technology was not quite mature enough to yield such a large design and so we worked closely in partnership with Pragmatic on a process of Design Technology Co-Optimisation (DCTO) to improve density and yield.
Then, in 2020, once Pragmatic’s FlexLogIC® fab-in-a-box manufacturing system had come online, the capability of the technology had improved so much that we were able to build the world’s first fully functional non-silicon Arm processor. Although it was an ultra-minimalist Cortex-M0-based system-on-chip (SoC) with just 128 bytes of RAM and 456 bytes of ROM, it was still 12x more complex than previous state-of-the-art flexible electronics. Quite an achievement!
Back to the (flexible) future
As Arm moved away from blue-sky research, there was an opportunity for the PlasticARM team to continue their work with Pragmatic … so here we all are! It’s been quite a culture shift from working with over 6,000 people at Arm to the small, nimble team here at Pragmatic. However, I’m enjoying the change of pace – and it very much reminds me of the early days of Arm.
Indeed, flexible semiconductors now seem to be at a similar stage of development as silicon was back then. That is, they’re following Moore’s Law, but three to four decades behind silicon. If this trend continues, and I think it will for a while yet, then there will be some very exciting opportunities in the near future. As more complex circuits are designed, enabling more memory, sensors and other components to be integrated, the potential for this technology is vast.
By giving almost every object the potential to become ‘smart’ – at scale – we can efficiently enable the Internet of Everything, accelerating progress more sustainably. I envisage flexible chips as an essential component of smart packaging, moving us towards a circular economy; connected healthcare, improving outcomes; logistics, increasing productivity … Just as they were for the brave new world of silicon, the applications are near-limitless.
The world of technology is never dull, but these are particularly exciting times – and I’m delighted to be part of them.
Enjoyed this blog? Check out our previous Q&A with John Biggs here.