Once upon a time, designing your own chip took serious cash. Semiconductor innovation was only an option if you had a few hundred thousand dollars to spare. In recent years, however, there’s been increasing industry momentum towards the democratisation of chip design.

Projects range from open Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) initiatives such as RISC-V to Google’s OpenMPW shuttle program offering access to no-cost manufacture and TinyTapeout’s templated pipeline for newbies, which makes chip design as easy as arranging logic gates on a web page.

This is great news for researchers and entrepreneurs who may be bursting with bright ideas but lacking the financial clout necessary to realise their projects. However, it’s also good news for semiconductor development: an open development model not only helps lower the barriers to entry, it creates a broader ecosystem and allows innovation to thrive.

Democratising IC design

In the world of software, democratisation is old news: open-source software (OSS) has been around since at least 1953. That’s when Remington Rand’s UNIVAC division developed the A-2 (Arithmetic Language v2) system, which was released to their customers along with the source code – complete with an invitation to submit suggestions for improvement. Today, the vast majority of programming languages have a free software implementation available. But, perhaps because of non-disclosure agreements designed to safeguard trade secrets, open hardware collaboration has tended to lag behind.

In some ways, this is surprising, because it has repeatedly been demonstrated that community collaboration can lead to outcomes that surpass those achieved by individuals or isolated teams, sparking novel solutions to problems that might otherwise have gone unsolved.

However, designing a chip is a complex process involving multiple parties at every step of the way. To truly lower barriers, no operator can act in isolation: licence-free access must be achieved across the design cycle, from specification and optimisation to manufacturing and testing.

A shift towards democratisation 

One of the biggest players in the shift towards democratisation is Google. Its open-source silicon initiative smooths a path for developers to create manufacturable silicon designs by providing fully open-source process design kits (PDKs) and toolchains, along with a chance to gain free manufacture through the OpenMPW [multi-project wafer] program. The only caveat is that the customised PDK is shareable.

This approach both benefits the community, increasing the number of individuals working on the development of accompanying tooling, and provides a pathway to low or no-cost manufacture for entrepreneurs.

Another big hitter in the open-source hardware world is RISC-V and its open ISA, available under a royalty-free, open-source licence. Anyone can take their instruction set to design a RISC-V-compliant processor and, if they so choose, add custom instructions to differentiate – a freedom only possible with open standard instruction sets.

As part of the OpenMPW program, efabless offers Caravel, a RISC-V-based, plug-and-play reference system-on-a-chip that accelerates both design and integration time.

OpenRoad – a recently launched project from DARPA, the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Defense – also aims to bridge the cost and expertise gaps that system designers encounter. Its open-source semiconductor design automation tools enable, “no-human-in-loop, 24-hour design”. The project encompasses OpenLane, a free, automated register transfer language (RTL) to GDSII design flow, which outputs the final chip layout, in standard file format, ready for fabrication.

Contributing to democratisation  

Pragmatic’s flexible integrated circuit (FlexIC) technology already costs orders of magnitude less than silicon semiconductors and is significantly quicker to produce, allowing designs to be iterated and chips produced in just weeks, rather than months. This makes it ideal for meeting individual use cases with application-specific chips. But we’re keen to lower the barriers to entry further, extending opportunity to innovators, and contributing to the growth of the semiconductor industry, in the UK and beyond.

So how do we plan to do that?

Inspired by the pioneering initiatives discussed above, we’re working to make our technology platform compatible with OpenLane. Our PDK is already compatible with commercial electronic design automation (EDA) software tools, which are worth their weight in gold for advanced semiconductor design, but – cost-wise – can be a significant barrier to entry for low-complexity use cases. By supporting open-source design flows, we can allow access to more people.

We’ve also just announced our collaboration with Europractice, which aims to bridge the gap between academia and industry by providing affordable access to semiconductor fabrication through its multi-project wafer services targeting start-ups and academic spin-offs.

We also have an ambition to work with the UK semiconductor community to connect multiple open-access fabs, within industry and academia, that can reinvigorate the UK semiconductor sector and develop new skills across the whole value chain.

Global benefits

Although these projects will undoubtedly bring social benefits, they are underpinned by sound commercial objectives. For Pragmatic, contributing to democratisation of IC design will encourage use and drive enrichment of our technology. On a wider scale, in addition to advancing innovation, it will help to cultivate an ecosystem of developers and designers, bringing further jobs and skills to the community, and help mitigate the supply-chain issues that have plagued industry over the past few years.

In short, we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Let the democratisation begin.