How Will RISC-V Change Supply Chains For Advanced Chips?

Created: July 8, 2024
Updated: July 24, 2024
How Will RISC-V Change Supply Chains For Advanced Chips?

From innovative new electronics to the most powerful artificial intelligence (AI) use cases, advanced chips form the backbone of the latest technologies—the current rate of innovation hinges on more power in smaller packages. 

For years, many industries have not had the expertise or resources to pursue custom chip designs, despite the fact that custom chips would bring a huge range of features in varying applications, such as harnessing the power of AI in consumer electronics, computing, data storage and aggregation, mobility, and so on. 

But the capability and capacity to deliver such components lies, in majority, with a handful of major manufacturers globally. While some countries are up and coming in the space—building fab capacity because their economies depend on it—an oligopoly comprises the US, China, and Taiwan. Shifts are happening across the globe, but the powers that be (China and the US) flex said authority in a war on imports and exports.

While these countries battle amongst themselves, parts designers are deliberating a source of flexibility in their development and manufacturing efforts. The fifth version of the Reduced Instruction Set Computing architecture (RISC-V) could provide a platform to many companies to offer customized semiconductor products at significantly reduced cost, as well as the elimination of costly IP licenses for a new component. 

What is RISC-V?

There is a debate that cuts a line between two forms of central processing unit (CPU) structures available today. Generally, two of the high-performing chip makers Intel and AMD use the x86 architecture. Alternatively there is the ARM CPU, which is also a RISC architecture but that requires a license to use in a new chip design. But, with a free-to-use open-source solution available, developers are able to leverage a platform with greater flexibility; to be adapted for various applications. 

In terms of usability, the RISC-V—referred to as “RISC-five”—is seen as a more flexible architecture for building more innovative CPUs without constraints derived from manufacturers themselves. Introduced by the University of California (UC) Berkeley in 2014—and now overseen by a non-profit called RISC-V International, RISC-V provides a comparable computing platform but without the licensing requirements that comes with a proprietary architecture like x86 or ARM.

Royalty-Free Chip Development Opportunities

Aside from the acclaimed ease-of-use, the open-source platform RISC-V is also free from royalties. Historically, semiconductor designers have turned to x86 and ARM, paying their respective owners for the use of their platforms. There is no surprise that the element of freedom earns RISC-V a lot of praise among its users. In addition, open-source support gives designers access to capabilities and design ideas that may not be obvious or available in x86 or ARM.

An ARM semiconductor chip
Traditionally, designers licensed x86 and ARM platforms from their owners

China vs US: Restrictions to open-source ISA

The use of RISC-V and the development of more advanced technology is overshadowed by conflicts between China and the US. Due to concerns around security, but also competition in the EDA market, the US aids to curb the use of RISC-V by China by prohibiting cooperation between American and Chinese researchers on topics involving RISC-V. China has been investing heavily in research and development of components that leverage the RISC-V open ISA as an alternative to British firm ARM and US firm Intel.

RISC-V Impacts on the Chip Supply Chain

There are a few factors that will determine the long-term impacts of RISC-V on the global electronic design automation (EDA) supply chain, including restrictions imposed on China by the US as well as the potential for new design organizations and adoption of fabless manufacturing models.

A female engineer at works in an electronics facility
RISC-V's impact depends on US-China restrictions, new designs, fabless models

Will OEMs Become Fabless Chip Companies?

The open-source nature of RISC-V could also shake up the supply chain as design teams can now access an ISA and design examples, which gives companies the ability to develop more advanced components in-house and without ties to certain manufacturers. With expanding access to foundry capacity from the likes of Intel and TSMC, companies have a much greater opportunity to build their own custom chips without the licensing expense and with lower risk. More technology companies like Microsoft, Tesla, and Northrop Grumman have brought their chip design activities in-house, and RISC-V gives other companies a chance to follow suit.

Understand the Pros and Cons of RISC-V

Benefits

  • Cost and Customization: As an open-source instruction set there are no licensing fees to use it. Companies can develop their own processors with no initial spend, which could speed up the rate of innovation and allow them to reduce unit costs. 
  • Flexibility: Full customization puts the developer in control of various factors from function to security. Extensions can be added to the base ISA, which provides much more flexibility than if designers were to use the leading purchased architecture. 
  • Reduced Power Consumption: Companies have more control over how they develop their parts, which means they are able to make adjustments to reduce power consumption. When using solutions like x86, designers are limited on the efficiency changes they can make. 
  • Ease of Procurement: When designing a product, companies could leverage RISC-V parts if x86-based or ARM-based solutions are unavailable. Companies are not solely reliant on proprietary technologies

Drawbacks

  • Less Mature Ecosystem: RISC-V is fairly new, meaning the tools and software required to develop using this architecture are still developing. In some cases, there may be fewer options to adapt designs when compared to established blueprints. 
  • Limited Support from Vendors: While fabless manufacturing has potential, there are still fewer companies making RISC-V chips, which could limit the options for designers. In this circumstance, proper supplier engagement could be the difference between successful delivery and inability to manufacture. 
  • National Restrictions: Due to ongoing discussions over the US control of RISC-V manufacturers in China may see greater restrictions or discontinuation of the architecture due to the ongoing conflict between the two nations. 
  • Security: Chinese researchers found some security flaws in open-source CPU architecture. Generally, CISC is expected to be more secure than RISC.
An illustration of an American computer chip
US-China relations may restrict or halt RISC-V use in China

An Evolving EDA Industry and Shifting Fab Power

While the use of RISC-V does not necessarily impact all of the major manufacturers—namely the leader, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. TSMC)—continued use of open ISA with advanced packaging techniques could produce significant shifts in the way certain OEMs design their systems. While the US and China are at odds to determine their positions in the market, other regions could leverage the open-source solution to divide and conquer—i.e. designers and manufacturers stick to what they do best. 

This could present more opportunities for the industry, but also encourage more volatility as parts designers see increasing fab capacity for the taking across emerging markets. Europe and Asia could benefit from this as they focus their attention on chip production to either grow their economy (Asia) or become more independent (Europe). 

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