Executive Insight: Frankwell Lin

Andes Technology’s president talks about the exploding market for IoT prototypes, what’s essential in those devices and how the market will evolve.

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Semiconductor Engineering sat down with Frankwell Lin, president and co-founder of Andes Technology, to talk about the IoT, what’s required in devices and what will likely change over the next few years. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

SE: What are the big market opportunities in the Asia/Pacific region?

Lin: The big market is the Internet of Things. Last year we started promoting IoT as one category, but even before that most of our customers had shifted their applications to IoT. We have more than 12 customers focused on IoT. Some of them are already in production, some are them are still in the design phase.

SE: Where are those customers?

Lin: Half of them are in Taiwan. The rest are in China, Korea, the United States and Japan. We have 85 customers worldwide.

SE: Is there any difference between what they’re looking for in the United States versus Korea versus China?

Lin: Each one has its own focus. So in Taiwan people are looking at more cost-effective projects. In the United States, there are more value-focused projects. China and Korea are very similar to Taiwan. And in Japan our customers are working on very high value projects.

SE: What’s the critical factor for these designs? Is it performance or power?

Lin: Our starting point was a core with low power, better performance and also one that is cost-effective. When our customers come to us usually they demand low power, low cost, and a small code size. That’s the program size, which is embedded as part of a system. These are the major characteristics. Then they have other demands, such as maturity of the tool chain and openness. These are the requirements before we enter into any business negotiations.

SE: Has that changed over the past couple years?

Lin: Not really. When you talk about IoT, the higher end could be cloud or servers. We are not in that segment. We are more in the middle and low end of the consumer IoT device. We have our own portfolio with two-stage pipelines, three-stage, five-stage, eight-stage. For some IoT projects, they demand very cost-effective solutions. For others, performance is critical.

SE: Define performance.

Lin: It’s how many MIPS you can achieve per megahertz. This might be for the smart home or displays for electronic labels, chargers or sensor hubs.

SE: IoT means many things to many people. What constitutes an IoT device?

Lin: For us there are three major factors for an IoT device. One is microprocessing or signal processing. The second is wireless connectivity. That could be very high frequency or low frequency, which could be as simple as Bluetooth or RFID. The third component is either a sensor or a display, either ingoing or outgoing. Customers think in terms of these categories. Sensors can either be integrated or they can be separate so you collect the output from those sensors. For companies that have sensors, they are integrating these other two factors to make them intelligent sensors. People with expertise in microprocessors might replace IP with sensor technology to become an IoT device. It is happening, although it will take some time for revenue to increase.

SE: One of the big issues for the IoT is what will actually catch hold in the market. How do you plan for that?

Lin: Someone told me there are more than 160 so-called IoT standards. This is the starting point. Everyone tries their new products, including wearable devices. It will take time to consolidate. But in terms of design, people have to make a decision about what kinds of processors and IP they will adopt. They’re trying to catch the market at this moment, and to do that they have to find an entry point. They ship a prototype or a second prototype, and gradually they learn what works in the IoT. There are many things under development right now.

SE: Such as?

Lin: We have some customers with wireless charging technologies. They first tried that out with mobile phones, but they recognized quickly that won’t be their growth path. People already have ways to charge their phones. So they are now focused on wearable devices. After one day, you put your wearable device into a wireless charging station. That makes sense. It’s too hard to attach the connectors to some of these devices.

SE: How important is reduction in power?

Lin: It’s very important. We guarantee our customers can reproduce the numbers we publish, and we guarantee 20% to 40% power savings over our customers. That combines four parameters—power, size, clock frequency and performance. Each core is 50% to 150% more efficient. In the IoT era, you don’t want to have to change a battery every day. Devices need to go to sleep unless they are working—collecting data or sending an alert to the server. When they are working, though, they have to work efficiently and quickly. Power efficiency becomes very important.

SE: How do you achieve that power efficiency?

Lin: It’s in the architecture. Engineers are clever in every company, but we don’t have such a heavy legacy. Our infrastructure and architecture are new, so we can take advantage of power-saving features.

SE: Is this process-node specific?

Lin: No, we don’t think in terms of process nodes. If you can create an iteration using an FPGA, it will work. We do use simulation and power estimation and EDA tools. Our customers are covering very advanced nodes, from 16nm finFETs to 28nm and all the way back to 0.18 micron. With a soft core, they can manipulate it by themselves. The process is their own choice. In the past, we did some test chips to build prototypes to prove that our technology works. As long as the foundry guarantees the process, we guarantee it will work. We have some advanced projects with universities. We have a project underway for a core that runs at 0.45 volts using TSMC 65nm process.

SE: Any work with 2.5D and 3D-IC or other architectures?

Lin: Our customers can certainly do all of those. One customer in Japan is using many cores, not multi-cores. It’s for a next-generation encoder/decoder for an 8K TV. Japan is trying to host the 2020 Olympics. The government wants to drive all broadcasts in 8K for that.

SE: One of the big shifts in connected devices is the always-on part. How does that affect design?

Lin: If you put devices outdoors, you never want to replace a battery. That means you need two characteristics. One is that it has to be extremely low power. The second is that it is basically always off. When people talk about always on, it really means always off. A device may only handle a couple of things, such as collecting data or sending an alert. It collects inputs from sensors, keeps it in storage, and goes to sleep. When that data shows something abnormal, it has to wake up and send an alert.

SE: So you’re starting to get a handle on the IoT as we move forward. What do you think will work or not work?

Lin: Everything has to work automatically in the cloud application. Today, within my family I am the system manager in my home. If it takes you an hour to turn on everything after you go home, that’s a nightmare. However, that brings up another issue, which is security. Those two factors have to be balanced. We are delivering cores for IoT devices, and we are also delivering IoT security.

SE: How do you approach security?

Lin: One way of differentiating our cores is by the pipeline. The second is with niche cores. We have two niche cores, one for extension and one for security. We have a secure MMU and a secure debugging board and power protection. We started to deliver a security core two years ago. We have a few customers doing projects based on that. We certainly see more opportunity in secure IoT operations. We see opportunities in authentication or identification with an embedded volatile memory. We will deliver secure application solutions so our customers will learn how to do security projects.