Freescale Semiconductor is rolling out the latest of its tiny ARM-based microcontrollers that is aimed at the growing Internet of things and wearable device markets.
Company officials on Dec. 1 unveiled an ultra-thin Kinetis K22 microcontroller (MCU) that they said has the thickness of a blade of grass. Freescale and other chip makers have been looking to shrink the MCUs to enable customers to build increasingly smaller Internet of things (IoT) and wearable devices, with much of the focus being around the chips' length and depth.
With the new Kinetis M22 MCU, which is available now, Freescale engineers focused on the height of the chip, reducing it by almost half over its predecessor, which was 0.60mm thick. The new chip comes in at 0.34mm, about half the thickness of a credit card, according to Steve Tateosian, manager of microcontroller platforms for Freescale.
"The trend now is toward miniature, ultra-small devices," Tateosian told eWEEK, adding that the trend is driving the demand for ultra-small components. Reducing the height of the chip "allows microcontrollers to go into devices where before there might not have been room."
Freescale officials are looking at a broad range of uses for the new MCU, from secure credit cards to wearable devices to consumer electronics. The reduced height of the chip will help the company grow its presence in such business segments, Tateosian said.
The key was the changes in packaging the company was able to achieve, he said. That included reducing the various layers of the MCU, while still enabling greater integration of components onto the chip, such as advanced analog and peripheral features and a crystal-less full-speed USB, according to Tateosian.
Within this 0.34mm-thick form factor, the MCU—based on ARM's Cortex-M4 chip design—offers a max frequency of 120MHz, 512KB of integrated flash and 128KB of integrate SRAM. The plan is for Freescale to deploy the ultra-thin packaging technology across a range of other Kinetis MCUs, with more products being released in the coming months, he said.
"It's a very, very thin form factor, and every little bit helps," Tateosian said. "We've seen the trend for thinner and thinner for several years. … It's an untapped opportunity in the market."
Freescale officials said having such thin MCUs will open up new areas for the company. For example, the new MCU could be used in medical devices, such as a system that monitors the glucose levels of a diabetic patient through a stretchable electronic path or implanted under the skin.
Freescale and other vendors have been pursuing smaller and lower-power MCUs to meet the growing demand fueled by the IoT, wearables and other small embedded systems. The IoT market is expected to expand rapidly over the next few years, with the number of devices growing rapidly—Cisco Systems officials predict the number of connected devices worldwide jumping from 25 billion last year to more than 50 billion in 2020—and revenues hitting $1.7 trillion, according to IDC analysts.
Freescale offers a broad range of ARM-based MCUs in its Kinetis lineup, as well as other chips aimed at the IoT. In February 2014, the company unveiled the Kinetis KL03, an MCU that fits into the dimple of a golf ball. In July, Freescale rolled out the i.MX6 single chip module (SCM), which is about the size of a dime and includes two ARM processor cores and other integrated components, such as memory boards and power management capabilities.
All this comes as NXP Semiconductors prepares to complete its $12 billion acquisition of Freescale in a deal that will create a combined company with a valuation of more than $40 billion. NXP officials on Nov. 27 said the deal had cleared its final regulatory hurdle after getting the approval from China's Ministry of Commerce. The sale is expected to close Dec. 7.
The company announced Nov. 30 that Daniel Durn, currently Freescale's CFO, will assume the same position at NXP after the deal is completed. Durn also will be given the title of executive vice president.