ASIC, SoC and SiP - Which to Choose?

Author : Richard Mount, Swindon Silicon Systems

05 July 2023

Across the board manufacturers are increased their digital related budgets. An important investment for any digital strategy is smart sensors. But, as technology grows in sophistication, pushing even more functionality into shrinking devices while keeping within reasonable boundaries is difficult.

This article breaks down the application specific integrated circuit (ASIC), system-on-chip (SoC) and system-in-package (SiP) options that are key to smart manufacturing integrated circuit (IC) implementations. 

Performing tasks, such as signal conditioning, data processing and suchlike, an IC is integral to smart sensor function. Acting as the sensor’s neural hub, the IC is tasked with converting any physical inputs into meaningful information that can subsequently be leveraged. 

It is important to note that the specific architecture, design and functionality of a custom IC will depend on the application that it is intended for. When seeking to add more functionality into a device, a manufacturer is bound to have a list of questions. Among these are likely to be: 
•What can be done to make the sensor more sophisticated? 
•How about conditioning the data and making the sensor response more linear (by calibrating the data to counter the effects of temperature drift)?
•Could the sensor filter unimportant events and only communicate changes that were relevant to the wider system? 
Depending on the manufacturer’s requirements, there are several forms of IC that could be employed. 

Why choose an ASIC?
Unlike general-purpose off-the-shelf ICs, such as microprocessors or memory chips, which are designed to perform a wide range of functions, ASICs are customised to carry out a specific function or set of functions. Built to meet the unique requirements of a particular application, an ASIC offers numerous potential advantages. These include higher performance, lower power consumption, smaller form factor and better overall cost-effectiveness compared to alternative digital IC solutions.

The design process of an ASIC involves translating the functional requirements of its destined application into a detailed circuit layout. ASICs can include a wide range of circuit elements, such as digital logic gates, memory blocks, analogue circuitry, input/output interfaces, etc.

There are many benefits associated with investing in an ASIC over a standard off-the-shelf IC. So much so that the short-term outlay can quickly pay for itself. By nature, ASICs will be highly optimised, allowing for superior performance compared to general-purpose solutions. By tailoring the circuitry to the defined application requirements, ASICs can achieve faster processing speeds, lower latency and higher efficiency. They can also be designed to minimise power consumption, making them well-suited to use cases with strict power constraints (such as ones that are battery driven). Furthermore, they can fit specific form factors and integration requirements, making them ideal for applications where space is limited.

Another major ASIC advantage is intellectual property (IP) protection. ASICs provide a high level of protection for proprietary algorithms and designs and, by implementing specific functions within an ASIC, sensitive IP can be safeguarded from reverse engineering or unauthorised use.

It is important to note that using ASICs comes with some considerations. ASIC development requires specialised expertise, and those wanting to make the leap to ASICs will need to work with an established partner to bring their ambitions to the fore. 

Using a SoC
When designing an ASIC, it often makes sense to incorporate other parts of the circuit schematic onto the same silicon die. These SoCs place all the major components of a complete electronic system onto a single chip. 

SoCs combine various functional blocks - such as the processors, memory, input/output interfaces, analogue circuits, digital logic and other peripherals required for the intended application. The key characteristic of SoC implementations is their high levels of integration, which eliminates the need for separate chips. The result is a simplified design, manufacturing and assembly process. Other benefits include reduced power consumption, improved performance, compact size and cost savings, due to a reduced component count.

A SoC usually contains a variety of components that include, but are not limited to, software and programming, voltage regulators and power management circuits, mixed signal interfacing (such as digital-to-analogue converters and vice-versa), a microprocessor and RAM/ROM memory. It will come with pre-designed and pre-verified IP blocks, obtained either directly from the chip designer or from verified third parties, that are combined on a single chip.

There are some key differences between an ASIC and a SoC. The principal aim of an ASIC is to tailor functionality to a specific application, offering the highest level of specialisation. While SoCs also deliver a high level of specialist functionality, the main driver for choosing them is to integrate multiple subsystems together monolithically. SoCs can often be more scalable too, as programmable components (such as CPU cores) can be reprogrammed or reconfigured to support different requirements as needed.

An introduction to SiP
Sometimes it is not possible to integrate all the system features into a single die and this is where SiP becomes favourable. A SiP is typically an ASIC in bare die form that is accompanied by another IC, for example a MEMS sensor or a communications die (such as BLE), and they are packaged together. The ASIC will provide the signal processing and sensor interface, while the MEMS device will act as the sensing element and the BLE will handle communications. 

SiP technology enables various benefits, including improved system performance, reduced power consumption, enhanced reliability and increased functionality. It permits the integration of diverse technologies, such as digital, analogue, radio frequency (RF) and MEMS, into one package. 

By combining multiple components, a SiP can provide advantages such as shorter interconnect lengths, reduced parasitic effects, improved signal integrity, etc. It also simplifies the manufacturing and assembly processes, reducing the overall cost and time required for production.

The choice between a SoC and a SiP depends on various factors, including the specific requirements of the application, the level of integration needed and the desired form factor. A SoC is typically preferred when a high degree of integration is required and the entire system can be monolithic. A SiP, on the other hand, is chosen when greater integration is needed than would be possible with traditional packaging methods, but not all components can be integrated into a single chip or if a shorter time to market is required. A SiP is advantageous when space limitations mean a smaller form factor is mandated, allowing for further miniaturisation. This is of value in mobile devices, wearables, IoT hardware and automotive electronics.

It could also be argued that a SoC offers greater design flexibility and scalability - since all the components are monolithically integrated. This makes it easier to modify and upgrade the system design. On the other hand, it could be said that a SiP allows for more flexibility in terms of component selection and mixing different technologies within a single package. Ultimately, an ASIC, SoC or SiP could all work in a manufacturer’s favour and there are clear benefits to integrating each technology into an application. The best option ultimately depends on the unique requirements of the customer.

For a manufacturer wanting to integrate more sophisticated, sensor-driven technology into their product, they may be pleased to know there are several options available. ASIC, SoC and SiP can all offer a multitude of performance gains that will help a product stand out from the competition. Knowing which option to choose, however, will require guidance from an expert in the design, test and supply of these ICs. By working with a acknowledged specialist, like Swindon Silicon Systems, it is certain that you will get the best out of your investment.

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