Pittsburgh Technical Council

System-on-a-Chip Technology in the Pittsburgh Region

System-on-a-Chip Technology in the Pittsburgh Region

Article Published: June 12, 2014

System-on-a-Chip (SoC) technology is designed as a programmable platform that integrates most of the functions of the end product into a single chip. System-on-a-Chip essentially packages all of the necessary electronic circuits and parts for a system onto one single integrated circuit, generally known as a microchip.  

System-on-a-Chip designs usually incorporate at least one processing element (microprocessor) that runs a system’s embedded software, and they also can contain elements for memory, graphics processing, wireless communications and/or analog functions.

Advantages of SoC technology include the ability to pack more processing power and memory into ever smaller, faster and more portable devices. With SoC, designers also can create ever more complex electronic systems for easy transport that will require little power at no cost to reliability.

In addition, SoC radically changes how new products are designed. Engineers can reuse design content or intellectual property, thereby dramatically decreasing time-to-market cycles. 

Good examples of System-on-a-Chip applications include cell phones, digital cameras and video equipment for which the sound-detecting devices alone might include an audio receiver, an analog-to-digital converter, a microprocessor, necessary memory and the input/output logic control for a user – all on a single microchip.

The Internet also is a key driver of SoC development, because as access to the Internet grows, the need for more bandwidth also increases. System-on-a-Chip technology helps to meet this challenge. With SoC technology, handheld computers with small whip antennas might someday be capable of browsing the Internet at megabit-per-second speeds from any point on the surface of the earth.

Challenges for Development

The broad-based application of SoC demands very complex design methodology. Major challenges for SoC development are linked to time, power and cost constraints.

Expert engineering talent also is a requirement. System-on-a-Chip development requires a highly skilled design team with extensive system-level knowledge, very high quality tools, the availability of embeddable memory elements, logic and processor cores and a stable manufacturing process. 

The ability to verify the system in a virtual environment before committing to manufacturing also is essential, and the tools to accomplish this are not yet widely available on the market.

Collaborative R&D and Technology Commercialization

The Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, and later The Technology Collaborative, historically had funded approximately $3 million annually in precursor design and embedded-system solutions that reach beyond the current generation of available products and services. Since 2005, the Collaborative’s Technology Commercialization Initiative had invested $14 million in 55 companies.

This funding reached into such areas as micro-electromechanical systems; mobile and low-power systems; wired, optical and wireless networking; human-computer interface technologies; piezoelectric elements; cybersecurity; multimedia applications and robotics.

The organization’s mission was to help stimulate Pennsylvania's technology-based economy by developing collaborating industry clusters that leverage the region's world-class assets in advanced electronics. Objectives included growing the number of technology companies in the region, increasing the number of high-value jobs and developing the talent, infrastructure, capital and partner networks necessary to support the long-term growth of the SoC subcluster.

Resources and support were combined from local universities, private foundations, regional development organizations, industry, federal, state and local government. The commonwealth had invested in excess of $35 million to support the organization’s statewide economic development efforts.

As a member-driven initiative, The Technology Collaborative delivered value-added programs that start-up and expanding businesses needed, including:

  • collaborative research and development and technology commercialization
  • talent recruitment
  • university education support
  • workforce development and training
  • start-up and expansion services, including incubation facilities
  • finance consulting
  • business planning assistance

Through fiscal year 2010, 168 technology commercialization projects had been selected for a total of $27.4 million in awards to universities and startups. The universities included Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and The Pennsylvania State University. The companies included among others:

  • Accipiter Systems
  • Advantech US

  • Aethon

  • Allpoint Systems
  • Bombardier Transportation

  • Bridge Semiconductor

  • Buzby Networks

  • Carnegie Robotics

  • Ciespace

  • Compunetix

  • Concurrent EDA
  • ContentVision

  • Disruptive Robotics

  • IBM

  • Intrigue Technologies

  • iRimsens
  • John Deere

  • Metis Secure Solutions


 
  • Mobile Fusion

  • NanoLambda

  • NetApp

  • Neya Systems

  • Novocell Semiconductor

  • Omnyx

  • Plextronics

  • RE2
  • RedZone Robotics

  • Robert Bosch 

  • SEEGRID

  • SpiralGen

  • Thar Process
  • Touchtown

  • Virtus Advanced Sensors

  • Voci™ Technologies 

  • Vocollect

  • Xactix

  • ZedX 

In 2012, The Technology Collaborative was ceded into the general operations of Innovation Works, which today carries on a similar mission within the same industry subclusters

University Education Support

In 2006, Carnegie Mellon University was awarded a six-year, $4.2 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create the next generation of chips that can reconfigure themselves to perform in new ways.

The grant was used to establish the Center for Memory Intensive Self Configuring Integrated Circuits. Today it is either prohibitively expensive or technically impossible to manufacture high-performance chips using current technology, unless they are produced by the millions. To overcome these limitations, the CMU researchers plan to build an integrated circuit with mechanical probes that can physically rewire the chip’s electrical connections with nanoscale-level accuracy.

This general-purpose chip could be made cheaply en masse and then be reconfigured for a countless array of end-use applications regardless of volume at little additional cost. The mechanical components of the chips would allow them to store substantial amounts of data, too.

Three distinct university programs create additional educational and professional training development efforts targeting SoC. The University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and The Pennsylvania State University offer a graduate level SoC certificate program that helps build a critical mass of engineers to develop the SoC industry in the region. Students can elect to take courses at any of the universities to fulfill requirements for their master’s degree in electrical engineering.

Students at the universities are linked through a virtual design program called the Digital Sandbox, a virtual SoC design facility that provides industrial hardware, software, workflows and technical support staff to all three member universities, thereby enabling all students to work on the same design problem. Students have access to the same technology and common sets of design tools in order to encourage cooperation and shared solutions, much like the team environment found in the industry.

Regional Companies

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s System-on-a-Chip companies span a range of industries that design, develop, and/or use SoC-related technologies. These companies include integrated device manufacturers, fabless semiconductor companies, integrated circuit designers, embedded system integrators and advanced electronic component companies.

Notable among these companies are industry leaders, like Avnet, Bridge Semiconductor, Circuits LLC, Compunetix, iRimsens, NetApp, Novocell, Powerex and Resonance Semiconductor.

Another example is Pittsburgh-based Akustica, which introduced the world’s first acoustic system-on-a-chip. The microphone and speaker chips are based on patented MEMS technology that integrates the functionality of multiple microphones or speakers with microelectronics and software onto a single, standard semiconductor. The result is a new class of acoustic solutions that deliver unprecedented capabilities for capturing, processing and reproducing sound.

Other FORTUNE 1,000, growth-oriented and entrepreneurial companies with forceful R&D initiatives, like IBM make up the remainder of southwestern Pennsylvania’s SoC industry subcluster.

As a result, the number of digital and advanced electronics-related jobs created since 2000 has totaled more than 2,500.

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