TI’s FRAM MCU signals that fabs are back
5/3/2011 7:01 AM EDT
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Texas Instruments is unveiling today (May 3) a new suite of ultra-low-power ferroelectric random access memory (FRAM) microcontrollers. The company will be demonstrating its development kit here at the Embedded Systems Conference this week.
The announcement signals that chip manufacturing may be making a comeback.
By combining a new low-power memory technology with the company’s already popular, entry-level 16-bit microcontrollers (MSP430 series), TI believes its new FRAM microcontrollers can open the door to a host of “smart” applications that require embedded systems to write data faster, collect more data points and/or retain data in all power modes.
TI claims the new FRAM microcontrollers, dubbed MSP430FR57xxFRAM, “ensures data can be written more than 100 times faster and uses as little as 250 times less power than flash- and EEPROM-based microcontrollers.”
Scott Roller, TI’s vice president of microcontroller products
The essence of TI’s new microcontroller lies in its “ultra-low power embedded memory,” said Scott Roller, vice president of microcontroller products at TI, in an interview with EE Times. “If you can drive down the power consumption, new markets will be created. That’s been always our fundamental belief at TI.”
TI’s announcement may also indicate that MCUs are becoming the next battleground for new memory technologies.
Then, there is the process technology angle that is signaling that fabs are back. In an increasingly fabless era, one rarely hears about a microcontroller company saying that process technology differentiates its product from others. TI asserts that its proprietary process technology, jointly developed with FRAM partner Ramtron, enables it to integrate its MCU with an FRAM and other analog options on the same chip.
Fujitsu’s FRAM foray
TI isn’t the only company to embed FRAM into microcontrollers, and its announcement isn’t the first time the industry is hearing about the advantages of FRAM used microcontrollers.
Last fall, Fujitsu Semiconductor America introduced a single-chip, 8-bit MCU featuring embedded FRAM for a variety of general purpose applications, including consumer electronics products, healthcare and industrial systems.
At the time, Fujitsu said “embedding FRAM into an MCU reduces the total footprint and cost, and simplifies system design,” while adding that “the architecture eliminates chip-to-chip interconnects, which significantly improves the transaction speed and internal bus interface between the MCU and memory. This enables performance that Flash or EEPROM cannot provide.”
TI has claimed that its MSP430FR57xx FRAM microcontroller offers “the industry’s lowest power.” Roller said it reduces “the industry’s best active power by up to 50 percent,” when executing code from FRAM, operating at 100µA/MHz in active mode and 3 µA in real-time clock mode.
Special process technology
Further separating TI from Fujitsu in FRAM microcontroller strategies is its future product roadmap and manufacturing capability.
Although Fujitsu originally served as Ramtron’s FRAM foundry, the Japanese chip vendor parted ways from Ramtron two years ago when Ramtron announced it was moving on to IBM’s 0.18-micron wafer manufacturing process.
In contrast, TI has maintained close relations with Ramtron.
They’ve been working together since 2001 to develop a process for making FRAM chips on TI’s 0.13-micron process.
Most notable, though, is that while serving as a foundry for Ramtron’s stand-alone FRAM memory chips, TI licensed the technology with a sharp focus on embedding blocks of FRAM memory within TI’s own logic chips.
The fruit of the TI-Ramtron joint development efforts is “a special process technology capable of integrating non-volatile memory [FRAM] with unique analog processes,” explained TI’s Roller. “Nobody’s got such a process technology.”
Herein lies the “manufacturing” advantage on which TI is now hanging its Stetson.
Meanwhile, FRAM is proving difficult to manufacture, as IBM has been struggling with an “FRAM-on-a-CMOS” process the company was supposed to deliver by the end of 2010.
TI, meanwhile, is said to be picking up the foundry slack for Ramtron.
Integrated in TI’s new FRAM microcontroller are FRAM densities up to 16kByte, in addition to analog and connectivity peripheral options, including a 10-bit ADC, 32-bit hardware multiplier, up to five 16-bit timers and multiple enhanced SPI/I2C/UART buses.
Fujitsu’s spokeswoman, contacted about the relationship with Ramtron, noted, “We prefer not to comment on the terms of our contract with Ramtron.” Asked about Fujitsu’s FRAM, she said, “Fujitsu is producing and developing standalone memories up to 4Mbit.
The current 180nm technology is very compatible with the low-power-consumption nature of FRAM.”
But when asked about FRAM-embedded microcontrollers, Fujitsu was less equivocal. “The technology migration is under discussion especially for logic-rich applications. As for FRAM microcontrollers, we are getting customers’ feedback in order to direct development appropriately,” the company said.
According to Semico Research Corp., the microcontroller unit market is expected to hit $16.6 billion worldwide in 2011, 12.0 percent growth annually. By 2015, it will reach $18.9 billion, said Tony Massimini, chief of technology at Semico. This is covers all types of MCUs. Massimini added, “The long term growth markets are automotive and industrial.”
By choosing the MSP430 family — a low cost, entry level MCU primarily targeted at industrial applications and consumers — to integrate FRAM, Massimini observed that the low power consumption makes FRAM microcontrollers “attractive for battery operation.”
TI believes that FRAM can solve a lot of real-world challenges. The FRAM solution, for example, allows sensors to take more samples every hour, enhancing sensor resolution, the company said. FRAM’s characteristics, such as low power consumption and faster data update/write speed, can make the FRAM-embedded microcontroller an ideal solution for “continuous monitoring” in seismic monitoring, asset tracking, or even in athletic shoes, according to Roller.
FRAM’s abilities for lower power, bit-level access and more importantly “write guarantee” even in case of power loss are also effective for over-the-air updates in home automation, metering, and safety/security, Roller added.
TI also believes FRAM microcontrollers will be exactly what system designers are asking for. Eliminating costly external EEPROM and battery-backed SRAM can be a huge advantage, allowing designers to easily change memory partitioning between program, data and cache in software, leading to system cost savings, according to TI.
What about the disadvantages of FRAM microcontrollers compared to others?
“From a technical point of view I cannot think of any,” Semico’s Massimini.
“It is more of a marketing challenge to convince system designers to consider FRAM for new designs.
Flash took a lot of marketing effort in the early 1990’s.”
TI will begin offering samples and tools immediately, with pricing for the new MSP430FR57xx microcontrollers starting at $1.20 in units of 10,000.