“I remember when 0402 chip devices were introduced. I heard phrases like ‘impossible,'” recalls Assembléon’s Senior Product Manager Eric Klaver in an Advanced Assembly article on miniaturization. “Then came 0201 and the claims were repeated, and again with 01005.”
As earbuds, AR/VR eyewear, and smartwatches continue to rise in popularity, engineers are seeing a correlating demand for smaller and more lightweight designs that can fit in unique form factors. To accommodate these needs, chipmakers are continually pushing the boundaries of board space: smaller components mean smaller boards.
These efforts toward miniaturization span both industry and academia, and this month has been no different. While ams and Dialog Semiconductor have both released components they claim are the “world’s smallest” of their kinds, academics at the University of Sussex have also published advances in miniature microchip development.
Dialog Semiconductor’s DA16200 is a key component in Tangshan HongJia Electronic Technology’s Wi-Fi SiP module. Image (modified) used courtesy of Dialog Semiconductor
ams Shrinks Proximity Sensors
ams made headlines this month with what it is calling “the industry’s smallest proximity sensor.”
The new sensor, the TMD2636, was designed specifically for wireless earbuds, allowing for the tech to automatically power up when inserted in the ear and down when removed. ams claims that the sensor, which comes in a 2.0 mm x 1.0 mm x 0.35 mm package, is 30% smaller than conventional solutions on the market.
Within this small package, the device integrates a sensor, a 940nm IR VCSEL emitter, IR-sensing photodiodes, and control circuitry. As a benefit to low-power operation, the sensor includes an average active-mode current consumption of 70µA, reaching as low as 0.7µA in sleep mode.
System block diagram of the TMD2636. Image used courtesy of ams
In an area-restricted space like the ear canal, shrinking components allows designers to make more room for the speaker itself or a larger battery—improving quality and battery life.
Dialog’s “Ultra-Small” Wi-Fi Solution
Another company zeroing in on small component size is Dialog Semiconductor, which recently announced the release of its newest miniaturized device, the HJ-DA16200.
Designed in partnership with Tangshan HongJia Electronic Technology, the HJ-DA16200 is a Wi-Fi system in package (SiP) highlighted for not only its size but also its low power consumption. The SiP notably consists of Dialog’s DA16200 Wi-Fi SoC, 2-4 MB flash memory, a crystal oscillator, RF lumped filter, and an antenna.
DA16200 block diagram. Image used courtesy of Dialog Semiconductor
Coming in an 8 mm x 8 mm x 1.3 mm package, the SiP includes pins for GPIOs, JTAG, RTC control, UART, power input, and antenna pins (optional to use external antenna). Most technical specs are not released yet.
Nano-Origami for Miniaturized ICs
Transitioning from the semiconductor market to the world of academia, researchers at the University of Sussex have come up with a new method to create devices that are even smaller than microchips.
In their paper published in ACS, the research team describes a new technique that involves what they call “nano-origami” with graphene. The method involves intentionally creating kinks in the structure of graphene in such a way that it behaves electrically like a switch—a micro-transistor.
Using something called “straintronics,” researchers claim they’ve created a device that behaves like a microchip, but at around 100 times smaller sizes. Image used courtesy of ACS Nano
Known as “straintronics,” using nanomaterials as opposed to electronics has allowed researchers to create microchips on the actual micro-level. Naturally, this allows for higher integration of chips in the same area or a smaller area for the same number of chips.
An added benefit of this technology is that it doesn’t require additional materials and the manufacturing process can occur at room temperature.
“World’s Smallest” Claims Can Come With Trade-Offs
One marketing title commonly affixed to new components these days is that a device is the “industry’s smallest.” While these hefty claims are attractive to designers for obvious reasons, miniaturized designs are not without their challenges.
What’s the smallest design you’ve worked on? What obstacles cropped up because of size constraints? Share your experiences in the comments below.