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A Smart System Technology Renaissance

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

By Margaret Schmitt
Leonardo da Vinci invented fantastic machines to revolutionize how man would live, work, wage war, and travel. Describing how he conceived these designs he said, “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.”

We currently are experiencing a renaissance of our own, with the rise of smart systems and how their technology plays a role in our lives. The promise of smart systems is emerging all around us in the form of autonomous cars to help us navigate through traffic, unmanned air systems (UASs) to provide sensitive reconnaissance, and medical devices to actively monitor and improve our health. Each smart system is a new invention, and certainly each electronic system consisting of various chips and packaging solutions represents that “canvas with a wash of black.”

This is what today’s engineers must start with in order to conceptualize how they will model, design and simulate these systems, making them a reality and fulfilling the purpose they are designed for within their power envelope of operation. At the center of these smart systems are the chips, undeniably the electronic brains of these smart systems. However, the design of these chips is more challenging than ever. Never before has such demand been placed on a chip’s performance, while shrinking the size of the system and reducing its power budget.

The latest smartphones require that power is reduced enough to not exceed their battery requirements, while still delivering—into the palms of our hands—more performance than our computer workstations from a decade ago. The same amount of performance is required in next generation UASs, which will have to integrate increasing capabilities for guidance control, weaponry, and surveillance in a very limited space.

For designers of these smart systems, the driving technologies for ensuring the power and thermal integrity of their creations are low-power design and 3-D integration. Rather than an afterthought, the careful pre-planning and analysis of the complete smart system enables designers in every field to achieve their masterpiece and allows their product to outperform.

Power management
Power management in the smart system must be addressed early in the design phase, at the architectural level, to ensure a long-enduring unit. Two of the smallest unmanned air systems (UASs) flying today rely solely on battery power to supply their motors and on-board electronic systems. These UASs are by no means simple systems, as they carry the same amount of on-board cameras and surveillance electronics as larger, higher-end UASs. Unnecessary power consumption in these UAS chips will lead to early depletion of their battery power sources, and to electrical and thermal reliability issues, which can shorten its expected lifetime in the field.

Therefore, the first step in power management of these smart systems is the optimization of power consumption in the system. This optimization needs to start at the beginning of the design stage, when the functional specification of the system is translated into register transfer language (RTL) code describing the implementation of the electronic system on a behavioral level. There may be many possible implementations that will result in the same system function of the system, all varying widely in power consumption, but a good designer will draw upon experience to optimize the RTL code to implement the necessary functionality in a power-efficient way.

Given the size and complexity of modern electronics, analyzing the RTL code organically is becoming unpractical. Instead, this requires the support of dedicated optimization tools capable of analyzing the full complexity of the system implementation. Reducing the power consumption of a component also reduces the amount of heat it generates, helping ensure that the system will operate more reliably in its target operation environment. Optimized power management, therefore, is an integral part of a system’s thermal management.

Thermal Management
In addition, thermal management of the electronic system is required to ensure the functionality of an electronic system. Thermal management has become increasingly challenging with the trend toward system miniaturization and the demand for integrating more and more capabilities into the electronic system. This drives up system power. As electronic components consume power, they also generate heat that must be removed from the components to avoid overheating and loss of reliable operation.

While electronic components continuously scale in size due to process improvements following Moore’s Law, cooling solutions are not scaling at the same rate and are becoming a major bottleneck for further miniaturization. Indeed, accurate chip modeling in a system is important to bring to light the actual chip power consumption, in what otherwise would be the “dark canvas” of the system without detailed chip knowledge. As a consequence, thermal management cannot be treated as an afterthought anymore, but must be an integral part of the system design considering heat generation and dissipation, which may include 3D-IC design, to enable further miniaturization of smart systems.

Though the design challenges are great, we have the opportunity in today’s smart systems through careful planning of power delivery and thermal management planning to invent new technology that is no less wondrous than da Vinci’s fantastic machines.

–Margaret Schmitt is director of applications engineering at Apache Design, a subsidiary of ANSYS.