China sees SoCs in standard MCUs
China sees SoCs in standard MCUs
By Ron Wilson, EE Times
May 5, 2003 (4:40 p.m. EST)
SAN FRANCISCO Technical, economic and social factors are combining to hand over much of the nascent system-on-chip market, particularly in China, to an unlikely beneficiary: the 32-bit off-the-shelf microcontroller.
A 32-bitter minimizes time-to-market, nonrecurring engineering costs and up-front tool license fees and relies on skills with which many Chinese design teams are already comfortable, leading many observers to deem it just about the optimum SoC approach.
Indeed, Sharp Microelectronics alone says it lined up 200 "serious prospects" for its 32-bit devices after just six days in China.
Issues of local content have been raised. Already, work has been reported on a native Chinese real-time kernel for 32-bit parts and design of a local 32-bit RISC architecture for embedded MCU cores. Talk of moving some MCU chip manufacturing to mainland fabrication facilities reportedly has reached the serious stage.
Design c apability for the MCU chips themselves may not be far behind, as Chinese chip design teams flex their growing muscle. For a first adventure, they may find the controlled environment of an MCU, the stability of the ARM core and the likelihood of finding a willing U.S. partner an attractive combination.
A convergence of factors is credited with turning the 32-bit MCU into a suddenly hot ticket.
Technology is a significant issue. Process advances have driven down the size of an ARM processor core to the point that it is no longer a cost factor in most designs. Often the advantages of software development in the ubiquitous ARM environment outweigh the small incremental cost of the 32-bit core, even compared with speed-enhanced versions of legacy 8-bit cores. So, in projects increasingly dominated by software development costs and risks, MCU programmers have a lot of leverage.
"If it's a 'make or buy' decision, designers are increasingly swinging toward 'buy,' " said Tom Starnes, senior an alyst specializing in microcontrollers with Gartner Dataquest. "ASICs, I'm sorry to say, can be an expensive proposition."
As much as 40 percent of the world's semiconductor content is shipped to Asia for assembly and "as much as 10 percent of the world's microcontroller components could be used in China," Starnes said.
Terry Thomas, director of microcontroller marketing at Sharp Microelectronics (Camas, Wash.), saw the Chinese demand firsthand. "In a six-day series of events in China, we collected 6,000 inquiries, from which we distilled 2,500 good leads and about 200 serious prospects," Thomas said. And they were not, he emphasized, for coffee makers and remote controls, but rather system-level designs with high semiconductor content.
While much of the global electronics industry is now focused on China as a growth engine, Thomas said the trend to 32-bitters is not strictly geographic. Sharp is seeing interest in all major geographic areas, he said, and in a range of markets.
| Triscend is selling ARM7TDMI-based MCU to SoC markets. |
With process trends converting what were once whole subsystems into simple on-chip peripherals, Thomas said, "We have had a number of designs move from 8-bit to 32-bit MCUs simply because their road map required them to add an LCD controller." Not only can a 32-bit MCU be the least expensive way to support an LCD panel, he said, but Sharp can often bundle panel, drivers and MCU to sweeten the deal.
Simultaneously, technology and financial issues are conspiring against the cell-based ASIC approach to SoC design in these markets. Front-end expenses for a traditional clean-sheet design are becoming huge. Worse, many of the risks of such a design come from building the basic platform-not from creating the en d product's special features. That's just bad risk management, many insist. So some sort of platform approach is becoming attractive in applications that require integration without bleeding-edge performance.
"Really, that makes a microcontroller a valid alternative to traditional SoC design," said Reynette Au, chief executive officer of Triscend Corp. (Mountain View, Calif.).
There are several ways to meet the need for hardware differentiation without forcing it into a full ASIC design. Sharp focuses on its proprietary knowledge of display control, and on increasingly application-specific configurations of its MCUs. Triscend employs about 25,000 usable gates of programmable logic on a chip that's closely coupled to a CPU bus.
Even traditional ASIC vendors are seeing customers look to the standard-product option. Farhad Maffie, vice president of the ASSP business unit at Toshiba America Electronic Components Inc. (Irvine, Calif.), described a process of partnering with customers that incl udes examining whether the customer should pursue an ASIC design, use an off-the-shelf ASSP or, perhaps, work with Toshiba to produce a new ASSP that could be sold to other customers as well-after a suitable delay.
With the growing importance of China as an end market, all of these issues take on a new flavor. "This design approach, with its very short time-to-market and its emphasis on systems analysis and programming rather than on chip design, has been very attractive in the Chinese market," Triscend's Au said.
-Additional reporting by Stephan Ohr.
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