Air Force Microelectronics Challenge – an IC innovation first

I guess advanced semiconductor design really is for everyone! The Advanced Microelectronics Design and Prototype Challenge sponsored by the Air Force Research Labs and its innovation-enabling affiliate, AFWERX, is calling into question a major piece of semiconductor conventional wisdom – that advanced node IC design cost and a risk-averse US venture capital industry have killed IC design innovation by all but the very few and the very large.

The Air Force and AFWERX imagined, sponsored and implemented a radical new idea. Issue an “open” call to action to anyone and everyone to create ICs based on 14 nm process that improve the efficacy of autonomous vehicles. Not a targeted RFP to the world’s largest chip companies. No BIG juicy contract. No established, market-proven application.

In fact, that was the point. The Air Force wanted to see if; when properly resourced with tools, IP and foundry access; small teams and companies would imagine important unmet market opportunities and create the enabling advanced ICs that the gorillas of the industry wouldn’t see.

The Challenge is a first of its kind for the industry. It began last November 2 and is organized in five phases taking place over about 18 months. In the first phase; which ended Tuesday, January 22; entrants were required to identify an application, architect an IC solution and then submit a detailed proposal. The proposals are effectively summary business plans including an architectural-level IC block diagram, a description of the targeted application and benefits enabled by the IC solution, team bios and identification of any resource or skills gaps that must be filled for success. The submissions will be showcased and judged with successful designs moved on through subsequent phases of Schematic Design and Simulation, Physical Design, Prototyping and Presenting of the final solutions. Teams could be combined and leveraged to improve the probability of a successful outcome.

The reality is that while the experiment is clearly a worthy one, no-one really knew exactly what to expect. Such a challenge was new to the IC industry. Also, no guarantees, no prizes and no contracts. Just the opportunity to invent, be discovered and maybe, just maybe, perhaps commercialize one-of-a-kind products. What could go wrong?!

Well, nothing went wrong and lots went right. Eighty-two proposals were submitted!! That’s right, 82 separate designs for 14 nm ICs imagined and architected in just three months. The submitters were a few large non-semiconductor companies and lots of firms that you won’t find in any of the industry journals or perhaps even with Google search. Just some really smart, creative men and women with really great IC designs for really great applications and very professionally presented submissions. We won’t discuss them here because the next stage is to present and judge and …. well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The point is that by unleashing a global creativity with no preconceptions the Air Force is getting some really great outcomes.

The message for the rest of us is that IC innovation isn’t dead or the domain of the elite. There are important products and services to be enabled if a collective global stadium of design talent and creativity can be connected and mobilized to improve the electronics that interact, process and communicate. The Air Force is on to something and lets follow along as the initial designs work their way through this fun and fascinating process.

Congratulations to the Air Force and its EDA, IP and foundry partners. Most of all, congratulations to all the participants for their amazing submissions, proving that grass roots IC innovation is alive and well.

Efabless Corporation

Disclosure. Efabless is serving as a consultant to the AFWERX on Phases 1 and 2 of the Advanced Microelectronics Design and Prototype Challenge