zGlue, a New Way to Build Hardware?

What most people think of as processors really aren’t. These days they’re mostly what are called System-on-Chip (SoC), where the processor…

Alasdair Allan
3 years ago

What most people think of as processors really aren’t. These days they’re mostly what are called System-on-Chip (SoC), where the processor, storage, and necessary IO are integrated into a single substrate, or more normally System-in-Package (SiP) and Multi-Chip Modules (MCM) designs, where multiple components are integrated inside a single package.

Perhaps the most familiar SiP to makers will be the Octavo Systems OSD335x, the so called “BeagleBone on a chip.” This module takes all the active and passive components needed to build a Beaglebone board a 1GHz Sitara Arm Cortex-A8 AM335xprocessor, 512 MB of DDR3 RAM, a TPS65217C PMIC, TL5209 LDO, all the needed passives, and 4KB of EEPROM, and crams them all into a single 21×21 mm BGA package.

The existence of SiP designs like these are what make simplified boards, like the PocketBeagle, even possible. But designing SiP modules isn’t for the faint hearted, it takes skill, time, and a serious investment of capital, to build a custom SiP for a product. Which is why most SiP modules are intended for general use cases. Unless you’re shipping your product on the scale of Apple, you’re not going to build your own SiP module for a new product—a rough cost estimate for going from a prototype to a production ready SiP would be of the order of a quarter of a million dollars.

Instead if you’re creating a product you’re going to be taking existing discrete components, and lay out a PCB. But that means the physical size of your product is going to be limited by the PCB size, and how tightly you can cram all the needed passives onto your board. For the Internet of Things, and especially for wearable devices, that’s a big deal.

Which is where zGlue and their zGlue Integration Platform (ZiP) module comes in, a new integration technology which claims to allow designers to stack chips more or less on demand.

A ZiP chip uses the same off-the-shelf and minimally packaged chips as a normal MCM but vastly simplifies assembling them into a working package.

A ZiP chip is built using a drag-and-drop tool, with the designer dropping components from a library on to a grid, generating a list of the needed components and all the connections between them.

In production all the components are placed on top of an underlying silicon substrate with a reprogrammable grid of fine wires connecting them. However uniquely, routing these wires happens “just in time” when the physical components are placed on the substrate, with automated tools measuring exactly where the components land on the grid and connecting them appropriately. This happens for each and every ZiP chip coming off the production line, which means that precise placing isn’t necessary and the ZiP chips can be assembled much more cheaply than equivalent SiP modules.

If you want to take a closer look at the zGlue technology, the zOrigin—a wireless, wearable, fitness tracker—built with the new chip-stacking technology, is currently raising on Crowd Supply.

Based on the ZGLZ1BA ZiP, which integrates a Dialog Semiconductor DA14585 16MHz 32-bit Arm Cortex-M0 MCU with on-chip BLE, an Analog Devices AD8233 Heart Rate Analog Front End, and an MCube MC3672 Accelerometer. Alongside those is 2 Mbit of Flash, an oscillator, power management hardware, and 30 passives. The chip comes as a 0.8-mm-pitch BGA package measuring 8.7 mm × 9.1 mm.

The zOrigin costs $49, with free shipping inside the US, and an additional $5 for shipping for the rest of the world. While a development board — which breaks out the pins and functionality of the ZGLZ1 chip is available for $99, with free shipping inside the US, and an additional $10 for shipping for the rest of the world.

“zOrigin is a full-featured, wireless fitness tracker that is so small it could easily go unnoticed among the coins in your pocket. However, it is also the first proof-of-concept of a new chip-stacking technology called zGlue that enables engineers and product designers to create and manufacture custom chips in a matter of days.”

A 5-pack of the ZGLZ1 chip is also available, allowing you to prototype your own projects using the same chip as used in zOrigin.

The zOrigin is raising now on Crowd Supply, and shipping is expected to begin to backers at the end of August. The zCAD software and associated design files for the ZGLZ1BA ZiP will be released after the shipment of zOrigin to crowdfunding backers—the estimate is towards the end of the year—and every backer of the zOrigin will receive a free trial of zCAD software allowing them to design their own ZiP chips.

Eventually these custom ZiP designs can be available through zGlue’s “ZiPlet Store,” which could effectively allow you to order custom SiP-like packages as easily as we order custom PCB designs today from places like OSH Park.

While it’s very early days to say anything for sure, if zGlue lives up to its impressive advertising it could simplify the design and packaging of custom chips, and that could vastly reducing the size and cost of spinning up new products. It could also make wearables that you actually wear far more practical to design and build.

[h/t: IEEE Spectrum]

Alasdair Allan
Scientist, author, hacker, maker, and journalist. Building, breaking, and writing. For hire. You can reach me at 📫 alasdair@babilim.co.uk.
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