Google Program to Free Chips Boosts University Semiconductor Design

By Agam Shah

August 11, 2022

A Google-led program to design and manufacture chips for free is becoming popular among researchers and computer enthusiasts.

The search giant’s open silicon program is providing the tools for anyone to design chips, which then get manufactured. Google foots the entire bill, from a chip’s conception to delivery of the final product in a user’s hand.

Google’s Open MPW program includes an open-source design toolkit from a company called EFabless, which also manages the program.

Enthusiasts and researchers have to submit their chip design, which then gets manufactured in the factories of SkyWater on the 130nm process. The submission deadline for the latest Open MPW program is September 12.

Open MPW’s popularity can be measured by the number of projects using Efabless’ EDA tools. Chips from about 240 open-source silicon projects via Efabless’ tools will be manufactured in Skywater’s factories, Mike Wishart, CEO of Efabless.

“The total projects posted on our site are like 570. That has gone extremely well. It’s diverse, from 25 countries,” Wishart said.

Efabless had about 160 tapeouts in 2021, and had no tapeouts in 2020.

Efabless provides a simple design EDA tool to make chips, which is mostly about dragging and dropping the core elements inside a chip. An open-source PDK (process design kit) prepares the chip for fabrication in factories.

The Open MPW program added recent partners, including the U.S. Department of Defense, which last month poured $15 million into the project to get open-source chips made on SkyWater’s 90nm process. GlobalFoundries also joined the alliance and will also manufacture chips on the 180nm node.

The manufacturing technology provided through the project is very old, but it is cost-effective. Intel, Apple and others make expensive chips on the more advanced processes such as 5nm, which uses cutting-edge technology and provides the fastest computing in devices.

Open MPW is popular in academia and research, and for those experimenting or testing chips and need small batches, Wishart said.

“Our incentive is to make it simple for more and more people and grow a community around those executing designs… [on] nodes that are more accessible to them and therefore lower costs,” Wishart said.

Typically, chips can be expensive to manufacture, and factories are open to corporations. But Open MPW makes factories available to researchers and students.

“There was an unmet need in academia, that was overwhelming and not appreciated because they didn’t know what they could get,” Wishart said.

The open-source toolkits cover the full concept of chip development, from conceptualization to delivery of parts. Some universities may have deals with chip factories, but students at the undergraduate, master’s and PhD programs still have poor awareness of chip fabrication.

While the Open MPW program has encouraged more chip designs at the enthusiast and academic levels, it was made possible by RISC-V, an open-source instruction set architecture. Most of the chip designs on Efabless’ platform are based on the RISC-V architecture, which has a modular design in which different features can be added or removed.

Wishart views open-source chip design ending up like Linux, with core intellectual property that can be shared. Companies will take those designs and tweak it to their own needs for commercial products.

“When all the dust settles, you are going see lots of hybrid designs, people using open source as a starting point… and adding their own proprietary [technologies],” Wishart said.

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