FlexiCore Boosts PragmatIC's Yield to Offer Basic Yet Functional Sub-Penny Plastic Processors

Significantly simplified over earlier designs, the four- and eight-bit FlexiCore chips are designed for high-yield production and low cost.

Flexible electronics specialist PragmatIC Semiconductor, working with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has showcased its next-generation flexible processors — and a gain in the number of working parts per wafer means these could be produced for less than a penny each.

PragmatIC has been working on its plastic processor technology for quite some time. Late last year the company unveiled a re-implementation of the iconic MOS 6502 eight-bit microprocessor, originally launched in 1975 and found in computers from the Apple I to the Commodore 64 — and earlier this year promised that it would work with Imec to turn it into a functional device for the Internet of Things (IoT).

The biggest stumbling block, however has been bringing the price down to where it can not only compete with more traditional rigid silicon chips but beat them — something the company claims it has now managed to achieve, in partnership with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

In research due to be presented at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture, brought to our attention by IEEE Spectrum but not yet publicly available, the team has showcased PragmatIC's fabrication technology to create four- and eight-bit microprocessors at a yield above 80 per cent — high enough, team lead Rakesh Kumar claims, to cost less than one penny apiece.

As with PragmatIC's previous efforts, the chips are created using an indium-gallium-zinc-oxide (IGZO) layer atop a flexible plastic substrate. Where they differ from their predecessors, and the reason for the jump in yield, is in a novel design chip dubbed FlexiCore and designed to minimize gate count.

The result is low-cost, flexible, mass-producible processors — and while the resulting chips are significantly more limited than the company's previous PlasticARM or even 6502 designs, they include enough functionality to be used in functional designs.

The FlexiCore research will be presented at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture later this month, with more information available on IEEE Spectrum.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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