Why Future Electronics Designs Might Be Chiplet-Based

Adam J. Fleischer
|  Created: April 8, 2024
Why Future Electronics Designs Might Be Chiplet-Based

In the semiconductor industry's ever-evolving landscape, a shift is occurring from traditional monolithic chip architectures toward more modular, chiplet-based designs. This transition is not merely a change in manufacturing technique. It represents a significant evolution in how the electronics industry conceptualizes, designs and delivers the electronic components driving the modern world. Chiplet-based architectures are emerging as a driving force of innovation, offering a promising avenue to continue the exponential growth in computing performance in a post-Moore's Law era.

Understanding Chiplets

At their core, chiplets are small, independently manufactured semiconductor components that – when combined within a single package – operate cohesively to perform as a traditional, singular chip. This disaggregation allows for a level of versatility and customization previously unattainable in monolithic designs. By treating these chiplets as building blocks, designers can create highly tailored systems that meet specific performance criteria.

Technical Advantages: One of the most compelling advantages of chiplets is their ability to bypass some of the limitations faced by traditional chip fabrication, particularly as the semiconductor industry inches closer to the physical limitations of silicon-based technologies. Chiplets offer a path forward, allowing for the continuation of performance improvements through other means than just transistor scaling. 

Chiplet-based components dedicate different functions to specific dies, and then those dies are packaged together into a component.
Chiplet-based components dedicate different functions to specific dies, and then those dies are packaged together into a component.

Chiplets enable systems to be more scalable and flexible, accommodating rapid technological advancements without necessitating a complete redesign of an entire chip. Moreover, the performance of chiplet-based systems has the potential to be significantly higher, as each chiplet can be fabricated using the process best suited for its function rather than a compromise that fits all parts of a monolithic chip.

Cost Efficiency: In semiconductor manufacturing, the economic factors are as crucial as the technical ones. The development of monolithic chips, especially at the bleeding edge of technology, is fraught with high costs and substantial risks associated with yield losses. Large monolithic silicon chips manufactured with more advanced processes have potential for lower yield for a given defect count; the chiplet approach spreads defects out over a larger number of chiplets and thus increases yield per wafer.

The Driving Forces Behind Chiplet Adoption

Moore's Law and Its Limitations: The semiconductor industry has long been guided by Moore's Law, the observation that the number of transistors on a chip doubles approximately every two years, leading to regular performance improvements. However, as this pace of scaling slows due to technical and economic barriers, the industry is compelled to find alternative avenues for growth. Chiplet technology emerges as a compelling solution, offering a viable path to continue performance enhancements through architectural innovations rather than relying on the perpetuity of Moore’s Law.

Complexity and Specialization: The demand for more complex and specialized processing capabilities is growing across all sectors, from artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics to high-performance computing and the Internet of Things (IoT). Chiplet architectures address this need by enabling the combination of specialized processing units optimized for specific tasks, resulting in more powerful and energy-efficient systems.

Supply Chain and Manufacturing Flexibility: Global semiconductor supply chains are increasingly vulnerable to disruptions from geopolitical tensions, trade disputes and unexpected events like pandemics. Chiplet architectures can alleviate some of these risks by enabling more flexible and resilient manufacturing strategies. Since chiplets can be produced and sourced from different suppliers and locations, manufacturers can mitigate the impact of localized disruptions, ensuring a more stable supply of critical components.

Chiplet Architecture and Integration Challenges

Design and Integration: The promise of chiplets comes with significant design and integration challenges. Creating a cohesive system from disparate components requires sophisticated interconnect technologies and methodologies. These interconnects must support high bandwidth and low latency to allow chiplets to communicate effectively, matching the performance of a monolithic chip as closely as possible.

Testing and Reliability: Ensuring the reliability and performance of chiplet-based systems adds layers of complexity to the testing process. Each chiplet and its interconnects must be rigorously tested to meet quality and reliability standards to ensure the final assembled chiplet package performs as intended under all conditions.

Ecosystem and Standards Development: The widespread adoption of chiplet technology will necessitate the development of a robust ecosystem, including universal standards for design, communication and integration. Establishing these standards is critical for consistent interoperability among chiplets from different manufacturers, which will foster innovation and reduce costs through economies of scale.

Real-World Chiplet Examples

Here are several high-profile examples of the potential of chiplet technology being realized today.

AMD Ryzen and EPYC Processors: AMD's approach to using chiplets in its Ryzen processor and EPYC processor lines demonstrates the significant performance and efficiency gains achievable with chiplet-based architectures. AMD's chiplet architecture, introduced with its Zen 2 and subsequent processor generations, utilizes multiple smaller chips (chiplets) connected via a high-speed Infinity Fabric interconnect. This design allows AMD to scale performance and core count efficiently while maintaining cost-effectiveness and flexibility.

Intel EMIB: Intel's EMIB (Embedded Multi-die Interconnect Bridge) is an innovative approach to packaging different semiconductor dies (chiplets) into a single package, allowing for high-speed communication between them. This technology enables the integration of heterogeneous chips – such as CPUs, GPUs and memory – into a single package, optimizing performance and power efficiency. 

One notable application of EMIB technology is Intel's Stratix 10 FPGAs and Agilex FPGAs, which cater to applications ranging from data centers to network infrastructure and embedded systems. Using EMIB, Intel delivers customized, high-performance computing solutions that meet specific customer needs.

Versal ACAP: The Versal ACAP (Adaptive Compute Acceleration Platform) series represents a category of heterogeneous compute devices that combine scalar processing engines, adaptable hardware and intelligent engines with leading-edge memory and interfacing technologies to deliver powerful and flexible capabilities. 

The Versal ACAP series' versatility and performance demonstrate the benefits of chiplet-based designs. These highly adaptable products meet the needs of a wide range of applications, from network and cloud acceleration to embedded computing and AI inference.

Looking Over the Horizon

Beyond these examples, chiplet technology is poised to revolutionize industries, including telecommunications for 5G networks, automotive electronics for advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), and even space exploration, where modular and scalable systems are invaluable.

As the semiconductor industry grapples with the limits of traditional scaling, chiplet-based designs are emerging as a powerful alternative, promising to drive the next wave of technological advancements. Offering unmatched flexibility, cost efficiency and the ability to tailor performance to specific needs, chiplets represent a significant shift in electronic design philosophy. As we stand on the brink of this new reality, the willingness and ability of industry designers and engineers to embrace and refine chiplet technology will be crucial in shaping the future of electronics.

About Author

About Author

Adam Fleischer is a principal at etimes.com, a technology marketing consultancy that works with technology leaders – like Microsoft, SAP, IBM, and Arrow Electronics – as well as with small high-growth companies. Adam has been a tech geek since programming a lunar landing game on a DEC mainframe as a kid. Adam founded and for a decade acted as CEO of E.ON Interactive, a boutique award-winning creative interactive design agency in Silicon Valley. He holds an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and a B.A. from Columbia University. Adam also has a background in performance magic and is currently on the executive team organizing an international conference on how performance magic inspires creativity in technology and science. 

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