More Knobs To Turn

New approaches to design and better use of new and existing tools will go a long way toward improving energy efficiency. But who’s going to pick up the tab?


Some of the hardest stuff is already done when it comes to saving power. Many engineers are quite well versed in managing multiple power islands and designing with sometimes dozens of voltage rails. There has even been massive progress in controlling gate leakage through a variety of materials and now 3D structures.

There also is much more that can be done to improve energy efficiency, ranging from writing more efficient software code to dropping the voltage in devices, changing out the substrate material and widening the I/O channels while also shortening the distances signals have to travel. Memory can be matched more efficiently to processors, and processors can be customized for specific functions or applications.

That this can be done at all is a testament to the advances in semiconductor engineering. After 60 years, engineers have become incredibly proficient at solving problems at the nanometer level—and probably soon in distances that will best be measured in Angstroms.

The only challenge now will be the intersection of technology and money. Can all of this be done for a reasonable cost? And if it can’t, then who’s going to take the hit?

These kinds of questions need to be answered rather soon. In a disaggregated ecosystem with extremely complex technology, having even closer partnerships will be a prerequisite to progress. Companies already are pouring millions of dollars into joint development efforts, but they also need to feel as if they’re reaping equal returns from that effort. So far, this hasn’t been a problem because these efforts are relatively new. But as time goes on, the real friction point may be less about the technology and processes being jointly developed and more about the value of that investment to each of the partners.

We are headed into some of the thorniest, as well as the most interesting, problems ever encountered in IC design. Power is front and center in all of this, and from the looks of it solving these issues won’t be cheap. In fact, it likely will be beyond the scope of any single company, no matter how large its pile of cash. The question now is what the leverage points will be for companies working together and how they will shape or reshape the industry.