The semiconductor industry is constantly confronted with design and device integration challenges as consumers demand smaller, portable and multi-functional electronic devices. With mounting hardware design requirements, a new class of designers are stepping in to address challenges with various silicon implementations, such as:
- Application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs)
- System-on-chip (SoC), and
- System-in-package (SiP)
SoC, in particular, is gaining increased importance in the IoT edge semiconductor market. It allows devices to operate with high power efficiency and security as it packs processors (MCU), RF transceiver, memory, power management, connectivity and sensors in a single unit. Considering these advantages, SoC has emerged as a suitable solution for intelligent edge IoT applications.
The need for innovation in IoT edge market
The IoT ecosystem is mainly divided into three segments, i.e., cloud, gateway, and edge. Each segment demands a different set of hardware with different functional requirements. The semiconductor industry has an obligation in each of the three segments. However, given the rising demand for connected devices such as smart watches, security cameras, smartphones, robots, connected cars, etc., the number of IoT devices in the edge segment is expected to explode. The implementation of modern semiconductor technologies at the edge is, therefore, pivotal for meeting the future demands of the IoT edge market. According to an IC insights report, the IoT edge semiconductor market grew at 18% in 2016 driven by the rapid expansion of connected cities, IIoT, and the consumer wearable market.
According to the Global Standard Initiative on IoT, for a device to be labeled as an IoT device, it must have seven features including sensors, internet connectivity, processors, energy efficiency, cost-effectiveness, quality, reliability, and security. Semiconductor players and chip manufacturers, therefore, need to provide these features in their products to be able to reap the benefits of the burgeoning IoT market.
Opportunities in the SoC-IoT market
The SoC-IoT ecosystem is causing the semiconductor industry to adopt a collaborative structure, wherein chip manufacturers and IP vendors work together to meet the design requirements including integration of software-hardware, analog-digital, and IP block reuse. Considering the diverse expertise of different types of players in the domain, IP vendors and chipmakers can bridge the gap between the initial designing and the final product, thus eliminating the need for hiring additional resources for design and engineering.
This type of collaborative environment will help both the parties alike, wherein the chipmakers will be able to choose the relevant IP blocks from a set of various technologies including low-power, analog, automatic test pattern generation, physical verification, reliability measures, memory controllers, and encryption, among others. On the other hand, IP vendors will get insights into potential design issues that may arise during the later stages of the product lifecycle. Using these insights, design optimization is likely to get simplified for future executions.
Considering that SoC must provide functional flexibility and processing capabilities, chipmakers will have to perform verification and validation in the initial phases of the design process. The means that there is considerable opportunity for chipmakers to provide analog SoC testing for IoT devices that functionally require audible input and output.
Other opportunities pertaining to technological advancements and trending solutions in the domain include custom SoCs, embedded eFPGA, embedded memories, security, connectivity, open-standards, and software integration, among others.
Custom SoC solutions
Companies need to have complete control over their silicon implementations. This control is best achieved by providing custom SoC solutions. Manufacturers will have easy control over the materials and supply chain as it helps to know about the demand and required quantity in advance. As a result, chipmakers will no longer be dependent on the availability of materials in the supply chain, thus planning each step in advance. The bottom line is, if a company can control the supply chain for its product, it can enjoy the privilege of controlling production for a long time. Any SoC company not in the business of customizing will eventually shift to this approach down the road.
Integration of software in SoC products is another opportunity that the semiconductor industry can explore. Considering the nature of SoC, once these chips are programmed during manufacturing, it cannot be changed or reconfigured. This is the state where the code is said to be frozen in hardware. With the introduction of embedded field programmable gate array (eFPGA), it is now possible to integrate SoC and FPGA into a single design, making SoC configurable and reconfigurable to meet the future requirements of the IoT market. The reprogrammable feature of FPGA allows SoCs to adapt to the changing market needs post-manufacturing thereby extending the product’s lifecycle. Further, edge computing and analytics-on-the-edge are driving the market for on-chip machine learning and AI solutions. Various subsets of AI, such as deep learning models, are bringing changes in the traditional SoC architecture and attracting investments in the industry. If that’s not all, interoperability between the wireless standards and protocols is also software-intensive. All in all, software platforms are the true enablers of SoC in new IoT applications.
Security in IoT was originally associated with the software platforms installed. These platforms have divided the IoT ecosystem into multiple silos i.e., a separate platform for each application industry (healthcare, industrial, etc.). Now, security features are being applied directly at the hardware-level of the device – down to their silicon implementations. In the future, SoC processors will be handling the security functions by employing various APIs. Chipmakers will be expected to adopt this silicon-level security in advanced IoT edge applications.
A lot has been spoken about the edge segment of the IoT ecosystem. However, some amount of innovation is also taking place at the gateway level. Adoption of machine learning and AI-based models is greater at the gateway-level, where optimizing secure routes and offering multi-protocol support is crucial. Autonomous gateways are moving closer to the edge while improving integration with cloud services at the same time.
The reducing prices of sensing solutions, wireless power technologies, and computing solutions are driving the adoption of IoT. Companies in this domain are therefore not holding back any investments in the form of money, efforts or innovation.
Our IP research suggests that fabless semiconductor companies, IP providers as well as semiconductor manufacturers are deeply involved in offering solutions for various SoC-IoT requirements. Most of these players are entirely focusing on the most common prerequisite of reducing the power consumption of IoT devices. Since it is practically impossible to completely eliminate batteries from sensors and devices, there is a need to reduce power consumption or look for a potential replacement mechanism. Sub-threshold circuits and various energy harvesting techniques are among the popular power management practices being adopted.
Additionally, other players aim to solve problems associated with multiple protocols, smart wireless audio, ML, neural networks, security, quick time-to-market, etc.
The race to win the SoC-IoT market is driving immense competition in the semiconductor industry. As this technology is in the development phase, it offers several avenues for growth. Market players can take suitable routes according to their distinct expertise to grow in the SoC-IoT space. Since design implementation is crucial for the SoC-IoT market, even key manufacturers are inclined towards getting their design specifications right in the early stages of the cycle.
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