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Cheaper flexible integrated circuits open up new markets. (Courtesy: PragmatIC)

 

Topics: Applied Physics, Moore's Law, Semiconductor Technology, Nanotechnology


For more than 50 years, progress in the electronics industry has been guided by Moore’s law: the idea that the number of transistors in a silicon-based integrated circuit (IC) will double approximately every 18 months. The consequences of this doubling include a continual reduction in the size of silicon ICs, as it becomes possible to provide increasingly complex and high-performance functionality in smaller and smaller areas of silicon, and at progressively lower cost relative to the circuits’ processing power.

Moore’s law is an empirical rule of thumb rather than a robust physical principle, and much has been written about how, why and when it will eventually fail. But even before we reach that point, manufacturers are already finding that, in practice, the cost savings associated with reducing the size, or “footprint”, of ICs will only carry them so far. The reason is that below a certain minimum size, ICs become difficult to handle easily or effectively. For highly complex circuitry, such as that found in computers with many millions of transistors in a single IC, this limit on handling size may not be a consideration. However, for applications that require less complex circuits, the size constraint imposed by the physical aspect of handling ICs becomes a limiting factor in their cost.

The approach we have taken at PragmatIC is to use thin, flexible substrates, rather than rigid silicon, as the base for building our circuits. The low cost of the materials involved and the relatively low complexity of our target applications alters the economics around circuit footprint and overall IC cost. Accepting a larger footprint can lower capital expenditure because it means that ultrahigh-end precision tooling is not required to fabricate our circuits during the manufacturing process. In turn, for low-complexity applications, this can lead to a lower final IC cost.

The resulting flexible integrated circuits, or FlexICs, are thinner than a human hair, so they can easily be embedded in everyday objects. They also cost around 10 times less than silicon ICs, making it economically viable for them to appear in trillions of smart objects that engage with consumers and their environments. Since the technology was developed, PragmatIC FlexICs have been trialed in a wide variety of markets, including consumer goods, games, retail, and the pharmaceutical and security sectors.

 

A smart approach to smart packaging
Catherine Ramsdale is vice-president of device development at PragmatIC

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