Converge And Consolidate

Power is driving some unusual combinations of engineering and scientific disciplines, and this is only the beginning.

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Electronics has always been about convergence, and convergence inevitably spawns new companies while forcing consolidation of others.

What used to be in a device moved to a board, from a board there has been a perpetual push to put things in a chip. At one point, circa 2000, analog companies claimed that mixed signal chips were a thing of the past and that there would be separate analog chips in addition to digital chips. There may be again in 2.5D stacking, but the whole thing will still end up in a package with much shorter wires and greater bandwidth.

Even processors are converging with SoCs. Intel’s top execs have been saying more forcefully for the past few years that the future is SoCs, and that the bulk of Intel’s future revenues will come from SoCs rather than monolithic processors. While that has yet to materialize in Intel’s earnings reports, at least there is a nod from the world’s most successful chipmaker that more has to be integrated into a chip than in the past. Apple, which is a partner and a rival for Intel, has already migrated a good portion of its product line to SoCs. And Panasonic and Fujitsu are in talks with Renesas to create a single SoC giant in Japan.

But there are some unusual changes in this march toward convergence and consolidation that are also showing up in the market, mostly because of power issues. Power is now dragging other disciplines into the basic design and engineering of an SoC, determining what goes where, how it gets put together and by whom, and notably how it can be made more efficient and cooled.

Cary Chin’s blog this week about solar smartphones is a case in point. So is the increasing role of mechanical engineering in SoCs for everything from cooling closer to the core to MEMS sensors that eventually will be built on a stacked die to energy scavenging using a combination of electrical and mechanical approaches. There is even work underway in research labs for chemical engineering to generate energy inside of devices. And increasingly there is a feedback loop to the software world to improve efficiency in software engineering.

The question is what other disciplines will begin to take a front-seat position in SoC design. One big change on the horizon is in the area of physics, which has always been a combination of observed and theoretical. In the past five years we have been able to actually see atoms, but over the next decade the expectation is that we will start seeing subatomic particles. At that point, theoretical physics becomes observed physics, and after that anything is possible.

How much of this will remain in the IC realm, and how much will filter out into other areas is unknown. But one thing is certain—we’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities.



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