Custom Chips As A Service

Ages ago, making a custom circuit board was hard. Either you had to go buy some traces at Radio Shack, or you spent a boatload of money talking to a board house. Now, PCBs are so cheap, I’m considering tiling my bathroom with them. Today, making a custom chip is horrifically expensive. You can theoretically make a transistor at home, but anything more demands quartz tube heaters and hydrofluoric acid. Custom ASICs are just out of reach for the home hacker, unless you’re siphoning money off of some crypto Ponzi scheme.

Now things may be changing. Costs are coming down, the software toolchain is getting there, and Onchip, the makers of an Open Source 32-bit microcontroller are now working on what can only be called a, ‘OSH Park for silicon’. They’re calling it Itsy-Chipsy, and it’s promising to bring you your own chip for as low as $100.

The inspiration for this business plan comes from services like MOSIS that allows university classes to design their own chips on multi-project wafers. This aggregates multiple chips onto one wafer, bringing the cost of a prototype down from tens of thousands of dollars to about five thousand dollars, or somewhere around a thousand dollars a chip.

Itsy-Chipsy is taking this batch processing one step further. This is a platform that combines multiple projects on one die. That thousand dollar chip is now sixteen different projects, tied together with regulators, current sources, clocks, and process monitors. Using a 2 mm by 2 mm chip size, Itsy-Chipsy gives chip designers 350 μm of silicon using a 180 nm CMOS process. That’s enough for a basic 32-bit RISC-V microprocessor in a QFN or DIP 40 for just one hundred dollars.

This project is a contender for The Hackaday Prize — the Prize ends in November and we’d be amazed to see results by then. The Onchip team is talking to foundries, though, and it looks like there’s interest for this model in the industry. We’d guess that the best case scenario is a crowdfunding campaign for an OSH Park-like chip fab sometime in 2019. Whenever it comes, this is something we’re eagerly awaiting.

Is This The End For The C.H.I.P.?

There have been so many launches of very capable little single-board computers, that it is easy to forget an individual one among the crowd. You probably remember the C.H.I.P though, for its audacious claim back in 2015 to be the first $9 computer. It ran Linux, and included wireless connectivity, composite video output, and support for battery power. As is so often the case with ambitious startups, progress from the C.H.I.P’s creator Next Thing Co came in fits and starts.

In recent months there has been something of a silence, and now members of the community have discovered evidence that Next Thing CO are the subject of a Notice of General Assignment from Insolvency Services Group. This is followed up by the discovery that their office is available for rent.

A process called Assignment to the Benefit of Creditors is an alternative to bankruptcy proceedings yet still signals the end of a company as the service liquidates remaining assets. Despite the website and forum remaining online it appears that we may have seen the end of the C.H.I.P. and its stablemates. Hackaday has reached out to Next Thing Co for comment and will update this article if we hear back.

At the time it was launched, the C.H.I.P. was a pretty impressive product, and though it has since been eclipsed by products like the Raspberry Pi Zero, the board remains a useful item. The addition of the PocketCHIP all-in-one keyboard and display peripheral made it an instantly recognizable device, and it and its more powerful companion C.H.I.P. Pro module found their way into quite a few projects. For us the most impressive C.H.I.P. project is a retrocomputer, this miniature Apple II complete with monitor. If this really is the end for this particular little board, we’ll be sorry to see it go.

Thanks [smerrett79] for the tip.

Header image: Kiwamu Okabe [CC BY-SA 2.0].

Never Let Your Christmas Tree Run Dry, With Added Ultrasound

Winter in the parts of the Northern Hemisphere for which observing Christmas includes bringing half a forest into the house should really be divided into two seasons. No-spruce-needles-in-the-carpet season, and spruce-needles-doggedly-clinging-to-the-carpet season. Evergreen trees were not designed for indoor use, and for a hapless householder to stand any chance of keeping those needles on the branches there has to be a significant amount of attention paid to the level of the water keeping the tree hydrated.

[Evan] has paid that attention to the problem of Christmas tree hydration, and to address the shortcomings of earlier designs has come up with a low water warning using an ultrasonic rangefinder. Where previous sensor attempts based on conductive probes succumbed to corrosion or dirt build-up, this one has no contact between sensor and water.

Behind the rangefinder is a CHIP board, whose software sends a text message to his phone when the water level gets a bit low. All the software is available in the linked GitHub page, so should you wish to make your tree safe from thirst, you too can give it a try.

SMS texts are a good way to alert a tree owner, but we quite like the sensor that used the tree lights instead.

Get Down to the Die Level with this Internal Chip Repair

Usually, repairing a device entails replacing a defective IC with a new one. But if you’ve got young eyes and haven’t had caffeine in a week, you can also repair a defective chip package rather than replace it.

There’s no description of the incident that resulted in the pins of the QFP chip being ablated, but it looks like a physical insult like a tool dropped on the pins. [rasminoj]’s repair consisted of carefully grinding away the epoxy cap to expose the internal traces leading away from the die and soldering a flexible cable with the same pitch between the die and the PCB pads.

This isn’t just about [rasminoj]’s next-level soldering skills, although we’ll admit you’ve got to be pretty handy with a Hakko to get the results shown here. What we’re impressed with is the wherewithal to attempt a repair that requires digging into the chip casing in the first place. Most service techs would order a new board, or at best solder in a new chip. But given that the chip sports a Fanuc logo, our bet is that it’s a custom chip that would be unreasonably expensive to replace, if it’s even still in production. Where there’s a skill, there’s a way.

Need more die-level repairs? Check out this iPhone CPU repair, or this repair on a laser-decapped chip.

[via r/electronics]

CES2017: Complete Register Documentation For The C.H.I.P.

Last October, Next Thing Co., makers of the popular C.H.I.P. platform unleashed the C.H.I.P. Pro, a very capable Linux system on a tiny board. The goal of the C.H.I.P. Pro is to be the brains of a project or product, similar to the Gumstix boards from an ancient era long before the Raspberry Pi.

Introduced alongside the C.H.I.P. Pro was a fantastic little device. The GR8 module is a complete Linux system on a chip, with an ARM Cortex-A8 processor and 256 MB of RAM, all on a relatively small BGA chip. This is a drop-in part that gives any piece of hardware a Linux brain.

There was a datasheet at the time the C.H.I.P. Pro and GR8 module were released, but a datasheet can only go so far. What you really need to use a Linux system on a module is a massive tome filled with descriptions of registers and all the hardware nooks and crannies needed to get the part working. At CES this week, Next Thing Co. brought what everyone has been asking for: an NDA-free complete register documentation for the core they’re using on the GR8 module. This is 400 pages of spiral-bound goodness that will tell you how to do everything with this chip.

Using the C.H.I.P. for products

When the C.H.I.P. was first released, it was easy to write it off as a board glomming on to the popularity of the Raspberry Pi. However, Next Thing Co. didn’t start with the C.H.I.P. – they started with Otto, an animated gif camera built around the Raspberry Pi compute module. The Otto was successful, but the compute module is a little expensive, so Next Thing Co. turned their attention to building a modern, inexpensive version of the old Gumstix boards.

The C.H.I.P. Pro and GR8 is the culmination of this work, and already a few companies have used it in production. At the Next Thing Co. suite, they showed off a new version of the Outernet base station powered by the C.H.I.P. Pro, and the TRNTBL, a wireless, Bluetooth, Airplay, and Spotify-connected turntable.

To illustrate how easy using the C.H.I.P. Pro in a product is, the guys at Next Thing Co. removed the Pi-powered guts of an Otto and replaced it with a C.H.I.P. Pro. There wasn’t much inside – just a battery, camera module, and a few bits and bobs. That’s great for anyone who wants to build a product that needs a relatively fast chip running Linux, and the stuff from Next Thing Co. makes it easy.

Ken Shirriff Takes Us Inside the IC, For Fun

[Ken Shirriff] has seen the insides of more integrated circuits than most people have seen bellybuttons. (This is an exaggeration.) But the point is, where we see a crazy jumble of circuitry, [Ken] sees a riddle to be solved, and he’s got a method that guides him through the madness.

In his talk at the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference, [Ken] stepped the audience through a number of famous chips, showing how he approaches them and how you could do the same if you wanted to, or needed to. Reading an IC from a photo is not for the faint of heart, but with a little perseverance, it can give you the keys to the kingdom. We’re stoked that [Ken] shared his methods with us, and gave us some deeper insight into a handful of classic silicon, from the Z80 processor to the 555 timer and LM7805 voltage regulator, and beyond.

Continue reading “Ken Shirriff Takes Us Inside the IC, For Fun”

NextThingCo Introduces C.H.I.P. Pro, GR8 System On Module

NextThingCo, makers of the very popular C.H.I.P. single board Linux computer, have released the latest iteration of their hardware. It’s the C.H.I.P. Pro, an SBC designed to be the embedded brains of your next great project, product, or Internet of Things thing.

The C.H.I.P. Pro features an Allwinner R8 ARMv7 Cortex-A8 running at 1 GHz, a MALI-400 GPU, and either 256 MB or 512 MB of NAND Flash. The Pro also features 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, and is fully certified by the FCC. This board will be available in December at supposedly any quantity for $16.

The design of the C.H.I.P. Pro is a mix between a module designed to be installed in a product and a single board computer designed for a breadboard. It features castellated edges like hundreds of other modules, but the design means that assembly won’t be as simple as throwing down some paste and reflowing everything. The C.H.I.P. Pro features parts on two sides, making reflow questionable and either 0.1″ headers or a cutout on a PCB necessary. As a single board computer, this thing is small, powerful, and a worthy competitor to the Raspberry Pi Zero. A C.H.I.P. Pro development kit, consisting of two C.H.I.P. Pro units, a ‘debug’ board, and headers for breadboarding, is available for $49, with an estimated ship date in December.

A $16 Linux module with WiFi, Bluetooth, and no NDA is neat, but perhaps a more interesting announcement is that NextThingCo will also be selling the module that powers the C.H.I.P. Pro.

The GR8 module includes an Allwinner R8 ARMv7 Cortex-A8 running at 1 GHz, a MALI-400 GPU, and 256 MB of DDR3 SDRAM. Peripherals include TWI, two UARTS, SPI (SD cards support is hacked onto this), two PWM outputs, a single 6-bit ADC, I2S audio, S/PDIF, one USB 2.0 Host and one USB 2.0 OTG, and a parallel camera interface. This isn’t really a chip meant for video out, but it does support TV out and a parallel LCD interface. A limited datasheet for the GR8 is available on the NextThingCo GitHub.

Putting an entire Linux system on a single BGA module must draw comparisons to the recent release of the Octavo Systems OSD355X family, best known to the Hackaday audiences as the Beaglebone on a chip. Mechanically, the Octavo chip will be a bit easier to solder. Even though it has almost twice as many balls as the GR8, 400 on the Octavo and 252 on the GR8, the Octavo has a much wider pitch between the balls, making escape routing much easier.

Comparing peripherals between the OSD355X and GR8, it’s a bit of a wash, with the OSD coming out slightly ahead with Ethernet, more RAM and fancy TI PRUs. Concerning pricing, the GR8 wins hands down at $6 per chip in any quantity. That’s significantly less than the OSD355X.

The original C.H.I.P. has been exceptionally well received by the community NextThingCo is marketing to, despite the community’s distaste for Allwinner CPUs, cringeworthy PR, and questions concerning the true price of the C.H.I.P.. The C.H.I.P. Pro will surely see more than a few uses, but the GR8 is the real story here. A jellybean part that contains an entire Linux system has been the fevered dream of a madman for years now. The GR8 makes putting the power of open software into any project much easier, and we can’t wait to see the applications it allows.