Crowdsourced Computer Chips: The Future of IoT

by | Sep 18, 2019

Efabless is the first crowdsourcing platform for semiconductor creation. It’s a unique approach, applying the proven crowdsourcing model to specialized electronics expertise. They offer a System-on-chip (SoC) request process to deliver custom silicon based on Arm M-class processors from a community of proven design firms. The offering leverages pre-engineered design templates and silicon-proven IP to deliver engineering samples within 20 weeks for as little as $70K. Efabless is processor agnostic and has also already shown significant success with Raven, their open-source computer chip. Let’s hear what their founders, Mike and Mohamed have to say:

What is Efabless, and how does it change the new product development process?

In a nutshell, our platform is a marketplace connecting integrated circuit (IC) design firms and designers with product companies, offering every necessary function to create a custom chip. We are dedicated to open innovation, the principal of global collaborative design. We mix and match the best of the open-source and proprietary worlds to deliver custom IC designs at speeds and costs that were never before imaginable. We have:

  • A design environment of open-source tools
  • Access to foundries (semiconductor jargon for “manufacturers”)
  • A marketplace with all the intellectual property (IP) necessary for chip creation
  • Experts and resources within a virtual organization

IC designers benefit from our easy-to-use platform for creating new types of circuits. For product companies, Efabless provides:

  1. An easy way to interact with a universe of potential chip designers
  2. Tools to calculate power, performance and cost of custom IC designs and to compare proposals from many different designers in a standard way
  3. Pre-engineered open source SoC design templates to accelerate the design process and reduce costs
  4. The ability to try-before-you-buy

The first two traits are necessary for a healthy marketplace, while the latter pair are especially valuable for our particular industry.

In the semiconductor industry, pre-engineered components dramatically reduce risk, since they’ve already been verified to a large degree. These pre-engineered components also allow for a faster cycle time from concept to market. Efabless typically takes our customers from initial request to manufacturing in seven weeks, as compared to the industry standard, three months... at a minimum.

Since semiconductors are complicated, try-before-you-buy helps avoid costly and time-intensive mistakes. For example, let’s say someone’s designing a chip based on an open-source design template on our platform. Today this could be our RISC-V-based Raven or our Arm-based Raptor. Not too far down the road, it will be a variety of options serving a full range of market segments. Before Efabless, a designer would need to acquire a license for design software and for IP before they even started redesigning the chips. If they happen to license the wrong IPs, tough luck. With Efabless, the redesign can be done virtually, on our platform. The product designer can grab all the relevant IP from our marketplace and experiment with them in a design before purchasing. They only pay for the IP when they move it into an actual product. If they need other skills to get the job done, they can contract community professionals and design firms through the platform and share information in collaborative project rooms.

For example, let’s say a device designer needs a chip for a smart bracelet to measure blood glucose during athletic performance. They could come to our platform, find the closest match, (i.e. an IoT edge device), choose it, and then, click, clone it as a “soft IP.” The pre-engineered template will show up in their “My Projects,” which they can then refine, filtering out options based on their needs. Estimates of power, performance and cost are displayed as various design choices are made. Their request for this custom chip is then clarified and confirmed by a member of our community before being created.

A screenshot of an example of creating a projecton Efabless

The Efabless Marketplace allows you to design and define your project using this template.

What drove you to create such an innovative model for chip design?

In our perfect world, the upfront cost of design would go to zero. Instead, all the participants in creating a product would share in downstream revenue.

Mohamed comes out of Texas Instruments, where he was involved in creating chips for cell phones. Mike came out of the investment banking industry, where he served the technology industry. We came together over a shared view that hardware and semiconductor creation would gravitate toward community-based models. Why? IoT changes everything. Hardware is becoming more customized, so design costs need to be low, and IoT companies are usually lacking in the electronics expertise to get the job done. Customized hardware will require new models of designing and delivering ICs. The distributed method of crowdsourcing--which facilitates customer and designer collaboration and delivers the right capability at the right time--is a clear fit. Add to that a comprehensive one-stop platform with design tools and IP offered at no upfront cost, and you have the solution.

Why would a product designer choose to use a custom chip?

In the long-term, a custom chip can be cheaper and more effective. On the cost side, instead of piecing together ten or fifteen standard parts, you use a single part. Functionally, it can also allow for hardware that fits a smaller space, enjoys better power/performance, or better hides your implementation design.

The choice between standard and custom chips is like commissioning a tailored suit versus picking one off the rack. Perhaps you find a standard suit you like, but it’s not warm enough for your climate. You could add a heater and battery to make a clumsy, awkward concoction or you could build one from the ground-up with warmer materials.

Customers buy standard chips because they’re reliable and ready immediately. They commission standard chips when they’re ready to improve their product. People should typically build their first prototype with a chip they get off-the-shelf, and then commission custom designs from their second prototype, onward. Efabless is creating community-engineered multi-chip packaging solutions and other alternatives to address the prototyping step as well.

What are the Raptor and the Raven and how do they help product designers?

Raptor and Raven are open-source design templates that can be quickly and inexpensively converted into a chip using our toolset. Raptor is based on Arm M-class processors and Raven is based on the open-source RISC-V processor architecture. They are perfect examples of community development of an IC. If product designers want to create a chip, they typically start from a blank slate or use previous versions developed by their company. For Raptor and Raven, we updated the process of reusing previous versions— instead of all the versions coming from a single company, we created them with the community.

Both offerings reduce the barrier for entry for chip modification. Many people without the background or experience to code a chip can still clone, modify, or hack them to solve their problem. (Or they can engage the community’s designers and firms to do it for them.)

Both offer their own value proposition. The Arm-based Raptor brings a broad and deep ecosystem and the substantial investments in security made by Arm. Since Raven is based on an open-source RISC-V architecture, it offers additional ability to customize and additional levels of transparency. For example, in another industry, the reputable secure messengers Signal and Telegram employ open-source code because it allows the community to ensure they lack security flaws.

Who’s using Raven?

Raven is silicon-proven and is already available for the entire community to clone, replicate, modify, and use in prototyping. (The silicon-proven version of Raptor is coming this fall - custom versions through our SoC Design Request can be designed and ordered today.)

Shortly after publishing Raven on Github we received an enquiry from a multinational electronics OEM. They approached us because our pre-configured templates and community model let them get to prototype faster and more cost-effectively than any other alternative. They are interested in RISC-V and believe that the Raven will allow customers to examine and even verify the final part in a protected way on the platform.

Raven is currently open for public use. On-the-ground consumer applications for Raven and Raptor are only months away.

What advice do you have for hardware product designers?

Planning too much without customer involvement or market validation is a recipe for failure.

Since hardware products require multidisciplinary teams, a larger upfront cost, and more lead-time than software, it’s even more important for hardware products to get-to-market quickly. After all, Silicon Valley is obsessed with software, and many software companies still fail from not iterating fast enough.

You can compensate for these difficulties by taking your product to market as quickly as possible. Create a prototype and iterate, then learn from those results and iterate again. Planning too much without customer involvement or market validation is a recipe for failure.

To get to market faster, at lower costs, and with better quality, embrace the world of open innovation. Consider using open-source hardware, or more likely, hybrid open source and proprietary designs. For example, both the Raven and Raptor have open source “top-level” designs and were created with open source tools. Both though use proprietary peripheral IPs that are available and proven. The Raven uses a CPU based on the open-source RISC-V instruction set. The Raptor is based on a proprietary Arm core. You can use the combination that meets your needs the best.

Open-source hardware and open innovation are nothing new. Efabless has taken this proven model and expanded it to custom semiconductors. When the time comes, a custom semiconductor with a custom IC allows for many new possibilities, often including increased functionality and reduced power usage.

If you decide that you’re ready for a custom chip, our community allows you to request assistance from a network of design firms who can answer questions or provide a timeline and quote. In every case, using Efabless will be cheaper than building a custom chip yourself.

Want to create a custom chip? Consider starting with one of Efabless’ open-source options or contacting Efabless for custom help.

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