10 things you need to know about creating custom silicon chips for IoT products

In an era where IoT sparks innovation in every corner of the globe and is redefining entire industries in the process, companies are using custom chips or custom system-on-chips (SoCs) to differentiate their new products against competitors. By adopting a custom solution, companies are able to achieve lower bill of materials (BOM), protect their design and lower power consumption with a limited initial investment.


1. It isn’t as expensive as you might think

The majority of custom SoCs don’t need leading-edge IP and silicon technology. Custom SoCs can use widely available mature technology at a fraction of the cost. Suppliers like Arm understand the flexibility needed for start-ups and other companies to be able to develop products with modest budgets. In fact, the Arm DesignStart program allows anyone to access industry-leading Arm Cortex-M0 and Cortex-M3 processors for $0 and to do this in minutes with a simple click-through end-user license agreement. When ready to commercialize, you can take advantage of a $0 production license, paying nothing but success-based royalties.

Today, a prototype chip can be built on a 180nm process with fab process costs as little as $18,000. Even at 65nm, a node that once powered early smartphones, the cost is now only $48,000.

Figure 1- Process node cost for 80 nm, 130 nm, and 65nm, showing a steady decline in price over time. Image courtesy of imec.IC-link.
Figure 1- Process node cost for 80 nm, 130 nm, and 65nm, showing a steady decline in price over time. Image courtesy of imec.IC-link.

2. It doesn’t have to be risky

Developing sensor technology with custom SoCs is a well-considered route for an increasing number of companies. There is a whole ecosystem of companies dedicated to helping people like you, to get the device they need, with well-developed quality processes, checklists, reviews, and expertise to make sure that custom chip design is no riskier than any other electronic design project.


3. You don’t have to do it all yourself

If you need help, there are many resources available, including courses and support from engineers. If you need even more help, Arm has a network of approved design partners who have been vetted for their expertise and professionalism. They can provide the support you need, from design-only services, all the way through to managing the entire life cycle, including production and supply.


4. You can own your future

Creating a custom SoC can help you differentiate your product in the marketplace and can also provide you with supply chain security. No longer will you have to worry about individual components becoming unavailable due to end-of-life issues. By using a custom SoC rather than a more easily copied standard component-based design, you’ll be protected against copycat competitors.


5. Investing in IP can make a lot of sense

Making your product stand out from the crowd is vital to its success. Better functionality, ease of use, and unique features can help get your product noticed. A custom SoC and the IP within it become a valuable set of assets to the future of your business.


6. One size does not fit all

Different types of products call for different solutions to meet specific needs. For example, a simple IoT device may need minimal processing power and extremely low power usage. On the other hand, in a smart appliance, you likely won’t be as concerned with how much power the custom SoC uses as you will with providing the necessary functions and features customers expect in today’s devices.


7. Upfront investment yields future dividends

Putting in the effort and taking the time to build a custom solution not only produces a better product, but can save you money. When you go into volume production with a custom solution, those cost savings are quickly amplified, making it much easier to invest in scaling your product for success.


8. A good specification is crucial to success

Do your planning before trying to design your custom SoC. Make sure that you’ve considered the entire team’s input in order to create a comprehensive product specification that you’ll use once you reach the SoC design phase.


9. Choosing the right IP is essential

Designing a custom SoC becomes a much simpler process when you can choose from proven IP building blocks. Don’t reinvent the wheel — make your innovation additive to proven components available on the market.


10. Don’t forget your tools and software

The investment you make in software is probably bigger than in hardware, even when you design your own SoC. Being able to reuse and build on the software you’ve developed is vital. Wise IP selection can allow you to reuse the software from your custom SoC in your next project, even if it uses an off-the-shelf chip.


To learn more about how to build a custom chip for your company, download the Custom Chips for Dummies guide, a step-by-step guide with real-world examples, top tips, and watch-outs to explain how to get your design to silicon.

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