Acting as a bridge between the analogue and digital worlds, integrated circuits (ICs) are crucial to any “smart” process, where real life conditions need to be interpreted to trigger the appropriate digital response. While standard ICs are available, those looking to gain a competitive edge should consider an application specific IC, or ASIC. Here, Richard Mount, Director of Sales at ASIC design and supply company Swindon Silicon Systems, puts forward the case for ASICs in Industry 4.0 applications.
The concept of Industry 4.0 has been around for over a decade, but it still remains a top priority for manufacturing leaders. According to KPMG’s Global Manufacturing Prospects 2022 report, advancing the digitisation and connectivity of all functional areas is the key growth goal over the next three years for 24 per cent of manufacturing executives. Realising this involves connecting everything within a factory — every aspect from the top floor to the shop floor — in a virtual ecosystem of sensors and automated workflows.
In a smart sensor, whether it’s an ASIC or a standard IC, the chips ultimately perform the same function, but differ in terms of optimised performance. As the fundamental building block of smart sensors, the ICs perform the crucial signal conditioning and digital signal processing functions that converts, manipulates and processes analogue signals into a usable level and format for factory automation, along with the wired or wireless communications protocols.
The specific applications depend on the type of sensor used, but there are several possibilities. In smart factories, every machine and process is a potential source of data that can be monitored to gain actionable insight. Using smart sensors to collect and analyse data, and to then make decisions based upon it, allows manufacturers to boost their facility’s productivity, extend system and machine lifespan and save energy.
For example, for those looking for a solution to manage energy consumption, occupancy sensors can be used turn HVAC and lighting systems on and off when a space is occupied. The energy consumption of every machine on the factory floor can also be analysed in real time to identify any anomalous consumption that is indicative of faulty equipment. Then, facilities can deploy a repair engineer in a timely manner to prevent long lasting inefficiencies that affect overall facility performance.
In some circumstances when production volumes are very low and the design is not intended to deliver exceptional performance, a selection of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components could offer sufficient performance credentials. However, in most cases it is more favourable to opt for an ASIC, which provides customised performance into a single compact package for a more optimised solution.
Specific over standard
The overarching benefit of ASICs is that they are designed to meet the product’s performance specification exactly — providing competitive technical and commercial advantages. While some may feel hesitant about the initial cost of a designing an ASIC, in the long term the cost benefits are substantial. By integrating as much of the circuitry as possible and engineering a bespoke specification, an ASIC provides a lower the bill of materials (BoM) and ease of manufacture, by reducing the component list. This is then coupled with the optimised performance that eliminates the use of over-specified off the shelf parts.
The other concern around COTS components surrounds obsolescence, as they inevitably go obsolete when the manufacturer develops a new offering or if the sales volume drops below the threshold at which manufacturing the IC is financially profitable. But this isn’t the case with ASICs.
ASICs are designed with the non-obsolescence of both the silicon process and packaging in mind. In the rare chance of either becoming obsolete it’s usually very easy to find alternative packaging. When it comes to silicon processes, it’s important to work with a trusted partner. An ASIC supplier normally receives two years’ notice on silicon process obsolescence, providing ample time for a suitable solution to be implemented. ASIC design companies such as Swindon will usually guarantee that the device will be available until the customer halts its production by using methods such as storing wafers in dry nitrogen cupboards for up to 25 years.
The final area where ASICs offer benefits for Industry 4.0 applications is in intellectual property (IP) protection. With ASICs, it’s extremely difficult to re-engineer an IC or reuse its IP in other designs. Swindon provides all its customers with full ownership of the completed system design ensuring that the IP of the final solution remains firmly in the customer’s possession. Swindon does not sell standard parts on the open market, thus ensuring that its customers’ IP will not be inadvertently used in a future related product.
While COTS ICs may fulfil some of the essential performance requirements for Industry 4.0’s smart sensor applications, opting for an ASIC is a more dynamic investment providing differentiation from the competitors. An ASIC’s long-term cost savings, non-obsolescence and unmatchable IP protection separates the good smart sensor deployments that use off-the-shelf solutions from the great.