By Dave Lammers, Contributing Editor
It takes a range of skills to create a successful business in the Internet of Things space, where chips sell for a few dollars and competition is intense. Circuit design and software support for multiple wireless standards must combine with manufacturing capabilities.
Daniel Cooley, senior vice president and general manager of IoT products at Silicon Labs (Austin, Tx.), said three trends are impacting the manufacture of IoT end-node devices, which usually combine an MCU, an RF transceiver, and embedded flash memory.
“There is an explosion in the amount of memory on embedded SoCs, both RAM and non-volatile memory,” said Cooley. Today’s multi-protocol wireless software stacks, graphics processing, and security requirements routinely double or quadruple the memory sizes of the past.
Secondly, while IoT edge devices continue to use trailing-edge technologies, nonetheless they also are moving to more advanced nodes. However, that movement is partially gated by the availability of embedded flash.
Thirdly, pre-certified system-in-package (SiP) solutions, running a proven software stack, “are becoming much more important,” Cooley said. These SiPs typically encapsulate an MCU, an integrated antenna and shielding, power management, crystal oscillators, and inductors and capacitors. While Silicon Labs has been shipping multi-chip modules for many years, SiPs are gaining favor in part because they can be quickly deployed by engineers with relatively little expertise in wireless development, he said.
“Personally, I believe that very advanced SIPs increasingly will be standard products, not anything exotic. They are a complete solution, like a PCB module, but encased with a molding compound. The SiP manufacturers are becoming very sophisticated, and we are ready to take that technology and apply it more broadly,” he said.
For example, Silicon Labs recently introduced a Bluetooth SiP module measuring 6.5 by 6.5 mm, designed for use in sports and fitness wearables, smartwatches, personal medical devices, wireless sensor nodes, and other space-constrained connected devices.
“We have built multi-chip packages – those go back to the first products of the company – but we haven’t done a fully certified module with a built-in antenna until now. A SiP module simplifies the go-to-market process. Customers can just put it down on a PCB and connect power and ground. Of course, they can attach other chips with the built-in interfaces, but they don’t need anything else to make the Bluetooth system work,” Cooley said.
“Designing with a certified SiP module supports better data throughput, and improves reliability as well. The SiP approach is especially beneficial for end-node customers which “haven’t gone through the process of launching a wireless product in in the market,” Cooley said.
Control by voice
The BGM12x Blue Gecko SiP is aimed at Bluetooth-enabled applications, a genre that is rapidly expanding as ecosystems like the Amazon Echo, Apple HomeKit, and Google Home proliferate.
Matt Maupin is Silicon Labs’ product marketing manager for mesh networking products, which includes SoCs and modules for low-power Zigbee and Thread wireless connectivity. Asked how a home lighting system, for example, might be connected to one of the home “ecosystems” now being sold by Amazon, Apple, Google, Nest, and others, Maupin said the major lighting suppliers, such as OSRAM, Philips, and others, often use Zigbee for lighting, rather than Bluetooth, because of Zigbee’s mesh networking capability. (Some manufactures use Bluetooth low energy (BLE) for point-to-point control from a phone.)
“The ability for a device to connect directly relies on the same protocols being used. Google and Amazon products do not support Zigbee or Thread connectivity at this time,” Maupin explained.
Normally, these lighting devices are connected to a hub. For example, Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home “both control the Philips lights through the Philips hub. Communication happens over the Ethernet network (wireless or wired depending on the hub). The Philips hub also supports HomeKit so that will work as well,” he said.
Maupin’s home configuration is set up so the Philips lights connect via Zigbee to the Philips hub, which connects to an Ethernet network. An Amazon Echo is connected to the Ethernet Network by WiFi.
“I have the Philips devices at home configured via their app. For example, I have lights in my bedroom configured differently for me and my wife. With voice commands, I can control these lamps with different commands such as ‘Alexa, turn off Matt’s lamp,’ or ‘Alexa, turn off the bedroom lamps.’”
Alexa communicates wirelessly to the Ethernet Network, which then goes to the Philips hub (which is sold under the brand name Philips Hue Bridge) via Ethernet, where the Philips hub then converts that to Zigbee to control that actual lamps. While that sounds complicated, Maupin said, “to consumers, it is just magic.”
A divided IoT market
IoT systems can be divided into the high-performance number crunchers which deal with massive amounts of data, and the “end-node” products which drive a much different set of requirements. Sandeep Kumar, senior vice president of worldwide operations at Silicon Labs, said RF, ultra-low-power processes and embedded NVM are essential for many end-node applications, and it can take several years for foundries to develop them beyond the base technology becoming available.
“40nm is an old technology node for the big digital companies. For IoT end nodes where we need a cost-effective RF process with ultra-low leakage and embedded NVM, the state of the art is 55nm; 40 nm is just getting ready,” Kumar said.
Embedded flash or any NVM takes as long as it does because, most often, it is developed not by the foundries themselves but by independent companies, such as Silicon Storage Technology. The foundry will implement this IP after the foundry has developed the base process. (SST has been part of Microchip Technology since 2010.) Typically, the eFlash capability lags by a few years for high-volume uses, and Kumar notes that “the 40nm eFlash is still not in high-volume production for end-node devices.”
Similarly, the ultra-low-leakage versions of a technology node take time and equipment investments, as well as cooperation from IP partners. Foundry customers and the fabless design houses must requalify for the low-leakage processes. “All the models change and simulations have to be redone,” Kumar said.
“We need low-leakage for the end applications that run on a button cell (battery), so that a security door or motion sensor, for example, can run for five to seven years. After the base technology is developed, it typically takes at least three years. If 40nm was available several years ago, the ultra-low-leakage process is just becoming available now.
“And some foundries may decide not to do ultra-low-leakage on certain technology nodes. It is a big capital and R&D investment to do ultra-low-leakage. Foundries have to make choices, and we have to manage that,” Kumar said.
The majority of Silicon Labs’ IoT product volume is in 180nm, while other non-IoT products use a 55nm process. The line of Blue Gecko wireless SoCs currently is on 90nm, made in 300mm fabs, while new designs are headed toward more advanced process nodes.
Because 180nm fabs are being used for MEMS, sensors and other analog-intensive, high-volume products, there is still “somewhat of a shortage” of 180nm wafers, Kumar said, though the situation is improving. “It has gotten better because TSMC and other foundries have added capacity, having heard from several customers that the 180nm node is where they are going to stay, or at least stay longer than they expected. While the foundries have added equipment and capital, it is still quite tight. I am sure the big MEMS and sensor companies are perfectly happy with 180nm,” Kumar said.
A testing advantage
IoT is a broad-based market with thousands of customers and a lot of small volume customizations. Over the past decade Silicon Labs has deployed a proprietary ultra-low-cost tester, developed in-house and used in internal back-end operations in Austin and Singapore at assembly and test subcontractors and at a few outside module makers as well. The Silicon Labs tester is much more cost effective than commercially available testers, an important cost advantage in a market where a wireless MCU can sell in small volumes to a large number of customers for just a few dollars.
“Testing adds costs, and it is a critical part of our strategy. We use our internally developed tester for our broad-based products, and it is effective at managing costs,” Kumar said.