Vanessa Knivett investigates smart tools for smart systems
News Release from:
07 November 2012
The term 'smart system' is well used, but what exactly does it mean? There are many definitions but the one that fits best for the purposes of this discussion is that provided by the European Commission's CORDIS programme: "Smart systems typically are sensors and/or actuators with an ability to process data, diagnose complex situations, communicate with each other and be autonomous in energy use."
No single technology plays the key role in a smart system’s functionality; it is, indeed, systemic — a ‘system’ in its purest form, with sensing, computation, communication and power all realised in a single tiny package. A smart system also represents a mixture of mechanical and electronic functions, making the job of the designer trying to predict its behaviour a complex one.
Indeed, the challenge for the smart systems industry as a whole is how to successfully design something that is so integrated. Today, smart system developers use separate design tools for different parts of the system, none of which take the final system integration step into account. Which is why the European Commission has part-funded a new research project entitled the ‘SMArt systems Co-design’ (SMAC) program, gathering together expertise from smart system manufacturers, EDA vendors and academic institutions to address the question.
Salvatore Rinaudo, SMAC project co-ordinator and Industrial and Multisegment Sector CAD R&D Director at STMicroelectronics explained that the lack of a structured design methodology is ‘the major obstacle to the rapid expansion of smart systems applications.’ It’s certainly not for want of applications; from healthcare to automotive and consumer devices, the prospective customer list is endless. The SMAC project’s goal is to build a ‘holistic, integration-aware, design platform’ that Rinaudo believes will give European industry ‘an advantage in exploiting the potential of smart systems, reducing design costs and time-to-market and minimising the risk of encountering problems in the final integration.’
Whilst it is fair to say that there are a few EDA vendors that have sought to address the problem of design tool integration, a smart system’s reliance on the whole spectrum of semiconductor technologies, from pure analogue and pure digital parts, to mixed signal, RF and MEMS, means that no EDA vendor is capable of supplying design tools to account for every part of the chain – as yet, anyway.
One SMAC participant is Coventor, which specialises in MEMS component modelling software – one link in the smart system design chain. Talking to Dr Gerold Schröpfer, Director of Coventor’s European Operations and Foundry Partner Program, he recounted that the environment in which MEMS devices have emerged from tends to be more of a mechanical one, with the implication being that there’s lots more prototyping involved, in contrast to the microelectronics world where there’s long been a far greater reliance on simulation and verification tools as a means of arriving at the finished design.
To meet wider, system level needs, Schröpfer says that the MEMS world needs to be more integration aware. Coventor’s MEMS+ design platform goes some way to tackling this issue by merging the look and feel of a mechanical 3D environment with the intelligence and modelling of an electronic circuit simulator and thus enabling design teams to optimise MEMS device and circuit simultaneously. MEMS+ is already fully compatible with Cadence and Simulink.
As far as the SMAC project goes, Coventor seeks to improve its tools to enable better component design by further exploring how final packaging influences MEMS component design i.e. temperature effects, mechanical stresses, etc. Schröpfer said it will also look to see how much more it can go up the system supply chain to make its products even more integration aware and link further to mainstream IC design tools.
Of course, many companies design smart systems successfully already, ST being one of them. Noted Rinaudo: “ST is quite active within the Smart Systems arena. For example, almost two years ago we announced a ‘smart’ contact lens with an embedded wireless MEMS sensor that acts as transducer, antenna and mechanical support that was developed in collaboration with Sensimed AG. This solution is dedicated to the early detection of glaucoma, the second most common cause of blindness around the world. A second example is an upcoming announcement regarding a proprietary ST-integrated System on Board (SoB) that hosts motion and magnetic sensors with a 32-bit processing unit and dedicated software. This smart system will benefit a wide variety of applications in areas as diverse as gaming, human machine interaction, robotics and patient movement recognition.”
As an end user of the SMAC platform, ST is contributing specifications and case studies to the research effort. Asked how ST tackles its current smart systems designs, Rinaudo explained: “From the top view, components are simulated with appropriate simulators (e.g. Finite Elements, Electro-dynamics, Fluid-dynamics) and models are synthesised for use in the next step of the flow. In addition, we’re now working with the interaction effect between different physical domains by using behavioural models of coupled parts. The objective is to provide a platform that helps improve productivity and reduce the design cost of these elements.”
The goal of a ‘structured design methodology that explicitly accounts for final integration’ is essentially a standard for designing smart systems, in so many words. Rinaudo noted that it is not the first time such a standard has been proposed; saying that standardisation in the framework of Design Methods is another necessary area of focus. He cited the example of the Silicon Integration Initiative SI2, a consortium of semiconductor companies and EDA tool vendors that operate with the objective of increasing design productivity, in which ST is also a member.
Frank Schenkel, VP Research & Development at MunEDA noted: “Standards are needed to make the tools work smoothly with each other. The designer should be able to concentrate on the design task and not on how to manipulate data so that it can be fed from one tool to another.” Like Coventor, MunEDA already has part of the solution. Schenkel explained: “Prior to the project, MunEDA primarily targeted block-level designers and, to a lesser extent, system designers. Our focus now is to extend the application of our methodologies (circuit verification and optimisation) to new areas, such as moving up from block-level to smaller systems or addressing MEMS designs.”
Discussing the complexity of the task ahead, Schenkel said: “The challenge will be to bring together designers from so many different domains (analogue, RF, MEMS, digital), to collect all the necessary information regarding tool requirements and to generate a holistic design flow that will meet everyone’s needs and expectations. Once that’s accomplished, the next difficult step will be to develop the missing methodologies/tools to successfully establish such a flow. Finally, we have to agree on a common language (or develop it, if it doesn't already exist) so that all tools involved in the design flow can interoperate with each other.”
The goals are tough for this three-year project, which started in October 2011. Schröpfer noted that from Coventor’s point of view, it would be realistic to expect some results from their analysis of packaging defects by the end of 2012, but that achieving the goal of a heterogeneous design flow is much longer term.
Rinaudo explained that ultimately, the SMAC Consortium will negotiate the transfer of some or all of the IP related to the platform with traditional EDA vendors, enabling third parties to industrialise and commercialise the SMAC technologies. Though it may seem to be the EDA industry that benefits most from this project, he is clear about the commercial benefits to participants such as ST: “Through our participation, we expect to gain substantial market share in high-end markets that require very high-performance smart products and new electronic applications.” All the better to refloat the EC’s research coffers with …