Flexible microprocessor can enable ‘Internet of Everything’

Christopher Carvid: Microchips are everywhere: they’re in our computers and smartphones, of course, but also in televisions, thermostats, refrigerators, washing machines, and cars. This growing collection of devices embedded in the brains of a computer and connecting to the Internet is known as the “Internet of Things”.

However, a lot of other things, like a milk carton, don’t have a smart chip or sensor — not to mention they can’t.

John Bigs: For example, imagine smart labels on food products that can change their expiration date, depending on how you handle them.

carved: John Biggs is a Distinguished Engineer at Arm Semiconductor. He and a team of researchers have now developed a flexible proof-of-concept chip that can be used in applications such as equipping a milk jug with computer intelligence. They say the chip is 12 times more complex than previous attempts. They described it in a recent issue of the magazine nature. [John Biggs et al., A natively flexible 32-bit Arm microprocessor]

They claim that microprocessors are cheap to build — thin transistors on a flexible, high-performance plastic substrate rather than rigid silicon.

Biggs: That’s just 40,000 transistors implemented in about 60 square millimeters. Just to compare it – well, for example, the processor in the original iPhone that appeared in 2007 is 14,000 times faster. So this is not a high-performance microprocessor, but it is aimed at applications that don’t really need that level of performance.

carved: Its co-author Katherine Ramsdale is Senior Vice President of Technology at PragmatIC Semiconductor. I’ve laid out a vision for how to use flexible chips like these.

Ramsdale: We’re talking, here, about putting electronics on the things you buy at Walmart or Tesco each week that would just help with supply chain management, waste management, real-time usage information, and healthcare monitoring. It provides a level of computing that is not currently available because it is not economical to do so.

Biggs: Yes, extending the scope of the Internet of Things to the “Internet of Everything”.

carved: Despite this enthusiasm, the two acknowledged that the project was a long way from commercializing.

First, although the microprocessor is built on a flexible plastic substrate, it has been tested on a flat, not curved surface. Manos Tentzeris is a Professor of Flexible Electronics at Georgia Tech, and was not involved in the work.

Tintziris: So when you’re referring to a flexible processor, a flexible device, or a flexible module, one of the first results you should show is that curvature doesn’t significantly affect performance.

carved: Bigs and Ramsdale said it could be difficult to run the tests while the foil is bent or flexed – and that they will look into this in future work.

remove sage, which covers the semiconductor industry for Moor Insights & Strategy, cited another issue. He says the chips are currently too large, and their power consumption is too high, which makes them cost-viable.

sag: I think the use on the milk jug makes sense. But I think you should also factor in the cost. And unless they are produced at a very low cost, there will be no point in them.

carved: However, they all pointed out that silicon chips first reached this level of complexity a long time ago – in the 1970s and 1980s – and had to overcome many similar challenges to get where they are today.

And John Bigs of the semiconductor company? He’s in the long game.

Biggs: What I see is rather flexible electronics that lags behind silicon by about three to four decades. So if we see anything like the rapid growth we’ve seen in silicon over the past three or four decades, there could be some very exciting developments in flexible electronics over the next decade or two.

carved: So maybe the Internet of everything comes. It may take some time to get here.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]