From Package to PCB: The Product Design Process of the Future
Advanced electronics like the product shown above are still designed with a traditional process, where the PCB and MCAD designers are at the mercy of semiconductor component packages. Despite all the talk of de-siloing PCB designers from every other area of engineering, the semiconductor industry still de facto dictates how electronics assemblies are designed and manufactured. This is because they make the all-important component packaging decisions to which designers and manufacturers must adhere.
If the packaging revolution and ultra-high density additive processes become more mainstream outside of southeast Asia, how will these developments affect product design as a whole? If packaging design takes off in a real way, and more companies see packaging as a route to increase sales for their products, that means more products will have to take a packaging-first approach to product design.
Advanced semiconductor packages are currently developed with a focus on the most advanced products on the market, such as high-compute general--purpose processors and specialty SoCs for consumer products. What if designers of lower volume, less advanced products could take the same approach to product design?
More Companies Should Develop Products and Packaging
Some of the best-known companies are not sitting back and letting the semiconductor industry feed them general-purpose processors. Products like the iPhone, wearables, tablets, and some advanced automotive products are using highly integrated SoCs and heterogeneously integrated components. By bringing these capabilities in-house, companies can design a component that meets performance goals without cobbling a bunch of off-the-shelf semiconductors into their products. This is the best way to ensure products hit their form factor and performance goals.
Currently, these advanced processes and diverse die options are expensive to access, and are only used for assembling the most advanced products. If more companies could access packaging assembly capabilities and a marketplace for chiplets, companies could take control over an entire design, and not just the PCB. Creating new functionality and new user experiences, right down to the level of individual innovators and startups, requires a new approach to
A Package-First Approach
If we take a package-first approach in product development, the package designer can create a pinout on the package for a given component form factor target. The PCB designer can also give input on the desired pinout, which will make the physical layout of the PCB much easier. It also allows the PCB designer and package designer to work together, where they pick and choose which features will go into the package versus which will be placed on the board as peripherals.
Normally, once a processor is designed and hits the market, the PCB designer takes over and solves the problem of fitting everything into a board without losing performance. In the package-first approach for advanced processors and modules, the designer has to take a direct role in designing the packaging and the interconnects between each die (or chiplet) placed in the package.
In a package-first approach, the PCB designer is really creating two products: the PCB that will house all the components and will function as a finished product, and a component module that can be manufactured on an IC substrate with advanced packaging processes. If there is a market for this design, they have a new revenue source that produces ROI on the initial design investment.
What’s Blocking a Package-First Approach?
Currently, the economics of packaging design and availability of semiconductor components in die form do not enable smaller OEMs to start from the package and build up to a complete product. Far too few companies make their components available in die form, they only offer fully packaged products that fit within the traditional PCB assembly process. This means smaller companies that have a great idea can only pursue it if they have huge budgets to support high volume production of their envisioned product.
From the PCB designer’s perspective, the solution appears simple: just make every prepackaged device available as an unpackaged die. This would allow designers to build their own packages or modules by purchasing dies off the shelf. However, because of the way many packages are built using lead frames and bond wires, rather than bump-outs and microbumps, designers simply cannot just place these onto a substrate and pass through assembly.
What will it take to get over this hurdle and bring packaging design capabilities to smaller companies?
- A chiplet interconnect standard that defines electrical
- A set of interposer/substrate power standards
- Thermal standards on packages, chiplets, substrates, and interposers
- An assembly standard for heterogeneously integrated chiplets on interposers or substrates
The industry is currently working toward a chiplet interconnect standard, similar to what we already see for PCBs as provided by IPC, JEDEC, and other industry groups. As these technologies develop, expect more standards announcements as the SIA/GSA come together to agree on these important standards for packaging development.
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