zGlue: Giving Chip Creators More Flexibility and Speed-to-Market
While many new hardware products can be assembled from existing off-the-shelf integrated circuit, many new ideas benefit from – or require – new chips. Historically, getting into the new chip game has required a big budget. However, one company is changing this and bringing faster, affordable chip design and fabrication: zGlue.
The zGlue Integration Platform (ZiP) helps start-ups, entrepreneurs and hobbyists seeking new, faster prototyping methodologies.
"We wanted to make the hardware design accessible for people to develop hardware just like they develop software – to be able to iterate on designs, and in a reasonable ballpark price to think about," says Jawad Nasrullah, Co-Founder/CTO, zGlue.
zGlue has been a great alternative to traditional design methods and manufacturers because single-chip technologies are typically optimized for one type of device. As a result, it’s not easily possible to combine multiple device types.
[For example] It is hard to combine MEMS (micro electro-mechanical systems) sensors and logic functions in one silicon chip. Instead, it is easier to find two or three ‘chiplets’ of these heterogeneous functions and integrate those into a package by using zGlue.
Connecting Chiplets for Quick Results
zGlue's fast, iterative solution for new chips consists of several components and approaches.
Chiplets are pre-validated products, containing some mix of microprocessors, memory, sensors and communication sub-components. Chiplets make up the essential pieces for today's IoT, wearable and other smart devices.
zGlue has a growing library (currently over 150) of pre-validated chiplets, providing the following functions:
- Power management
- Micro controller
Customers can also add new chiplets to the library on-demand.
"Smart Fabric" is a silicon base layer chip that chiplets are mounted on, which is then programmed to create the various interconnections. Smart Fabric is reprogrammable on-the-fly, letting developers make adjustments without having to do a PBC "re-spin" (redo and remake the board).
This is zGlue's cloud-based electronic system design tool. Once you've selected chiplets, you use ChipBuilder to construct schematics, set Smart Fabric connections, and select a chip "package" sized to accommodate the quantity and arrangement of chiplets.
zGlue currently works with varying package sizes. Using ChipBuilder, the process to go from idea to physical chip is easy:
- Design your chip
- Optimize its performance
- Review the 3D model
- Download design files such as a SPICE netlist (a text representation of the circuit, including components and connections), and zGlue’s configurable SDK.
- Code what is required for the chiplets and Smart Fabric (using zGlue’s SDK in ChipBuilder’s “Code” tab).
And then you're ready to turn your design into custom physical chips! zGlue engineers can even review your design and work with you.
Prototyping & Manufacturing
zGlue's Shuttle Program is intended for prototyping and sub-volume runs, making ten copies of your custom chip, using your validated ZiP design, ready to be put onto your board.
Shuttle "runs" are scheduled regularly; turnaround time from "departure" is usually a month. A Shuttle run currently costs around $25,000 – but remember, you can reprogram these chips, even dynamically rearrange some of the pin-outs.
Assuming your next step is volume, zGlue's manufacturing partners can help with that as well.
Exploring zGlue on a Budget
Currently, trying ChipBuilder and experimenting with various ZiP configurations and trial-design an idea – doesn't cost you anything. But getting that far doesn't mean you're necessarily ready to jump to the cost of a Shuttle run.
Fortunately, you can learn more about ZiPs without taking the time and expense of a Shuttle run. zGlue currently has one seven-chiplet ZiP product for sale, the OmniChip – other reference chips are in development – and its OmniChip Development Kit.
The OmniChip Development Kit includes an OmniChip Development Board. All you need is a PC or a Mac and a USB cable. Then you’re to program and work with the OmniChip, and whatever else you connect.
This gives you a better sense of what a ZiP can hold and do, and what's involved in getting one to do what you want.
"A lot of people who want to build custom chips for their systems didn't think it was feasible," says Nathan Pier, Business Development Manager, zGlue. "We're opening doors that people didn't think they could open."
About the author: (Daniel Dern)
Daniel P. Dern is an independent Boston-based technology, business and marketing writer. His articles have appeared everywhere from the Boston Globe and ComputerWorld to IEEE Spectrum and TechTarget. He was editor of Byte.com for several years, and the founding editor of Internet World Magazine. Daniel also writes science fiction and children's stories, and is an amateur magician.
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