Our technology has been developing at a rapid pace over the past few decades, and new research suggests that we may soon enter a new era of technological innovation with further advances thanks to incredibly affordable plastic processors.
So affordable, in fact, that these processors are estimated to be mass-produced for less than a penny. As reported by IEEE spectrum (opens in new tab), a team made up of researchers at the University of Illinois designed 4-bit and 8-bit processors and saw an eighty-one percent success rate for 4-bit models. Team leader and University of Illinois professor Rakesh Kumar says this percentage finally makes the technology viable.
“Flexible electronics have been a niche for decades,” Kumar said, later adding that this yield study shows “they may be ready for the mainstream.”
Before we get ahead of ourselves, you should know that you won’t be able to buy these processors – probably for some time – but their development is certainly exciting. You also don’t necessarily want to do this, as they are a far cry from many of the best processors available to install on your desktop PC.
Instead, like our friends from Tom’s Hardware point out, this offers a world of opportunity on a smaller scale. As Kumar mentioned in his statement, flexible gadgets and devices are still few and far between for a multitude of reasons, but these plastic processors have no issues with compliance – if this takes off, we could see more everyday objects being integrated with technology’ smart’, without the constraints of rigidity or even expense.
Analysis: Exciting times, but we have a way to go
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of plastic processors or even the first time a product has been produced. In 2021, Arm reproduced its 32-bit M0 microcontroller using the technology. But engineers at British Electronics make the PragmatIC Semiconductor, which helped create the chip, and the University of Illinois believed that existing chip designs are simply too complex to produce in plastic, given the costs involved.
The latest developments, however, have apparently resolved the affordability factor. This new batch of processors was created using indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) technology, flexible thin film semiconductor, which moves with the plastic it is built on and allows the product to be bent or flexed. This isn’t a new technology per se, but we’re more familiar with seeing it used in monitor panels than real gadgets.
With the flexibility issues also resolved, all that was needed was to address the original problem – the face of complex processor design. To address this, the team created a new architecture called FlexiCore.
“The throughput goes down very quickly as you increase the port count,” says Kumar, which explains why we’re seeing this used in 4-bit and 8-bit designs instead of 16-bit or 32-bit alternatives. The researchers also designed logic that reuses parts, requires fewer transistors and runs a single clock cycle.
So yes. This won’t be running a laptop anytime soon, but it sets a precedent that plastic processors aren’t just viable, they can be developed to take our technology into a new era.
In the words of Scott White, CEO of PragmatIC Semiconductor: “This is exactly the kind of design innovation needed to support truly ubiquitous electronics.”