Michigan chips will be first to test next-generation hardware design tools

U-M team will serve as model for nimble and innovative system-on-chip design.

Professors work on small chips Enlarge
EECS Professors David Blaauw and Dennis Sylvester work together in the Michigan Integrated Circuits Lab. Photo: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

To fuel innovation among small teams and startups and allow them to design and produce complex chips with ease, University of Michigan researchers will participate in a national program that aims to build free, open-source electronic design automation tools.

Michigan will act as internal design advisors on the project, named “OpenROAD (Foundations and Realization of Open and Accessible Design),” which is part of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Intelligent Design of Electronic Assets (IDEA) program under its larger Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI). The ERI’s goal is to spur research in advanced new materials, circuit design tools, and system architectures.

“The project makes design of really complex chips and system-on-chips feasible for a smaller design team,” said Dennis Sylvester, professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “Because of Michigan’s renowned success in developing integrated circuits with small teams, we’re the target audience for the project’s eventual tools.”

The U-M team, which includes Sylvester, David Blaauw, and Ronald Dreslinski, also professors of electrical engineering and computer science, will test the design tools and provide feedback once the partner organizations develop the OpenROAD tools.

University of California San Diego leads the OpenROAD project, which includes collaborators University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, University of Texas at Dallas, Brown University, Qualcomm, and Arm Holdings.

The design tools will aim to fulfill the goals of the IDEA program, including a 24-hour turnaround time and a completely automated and open-source solution that does not require a human in the process. This would allow those with limited hardware knowledge to quickly design and build complex devices with free tools.

“Currently, if a company wants to design a chip to put on the market, an impediment is the expensive and complex commercial design tools,” Sylvester said. “For this project, we can share our typical design flow, which isn’t as complex as a big company’s process, like Intel’s, and doesn’t require the same tools that Intel uses.”

The OpenROAD developers can then utilize the Michigan team’s process to create a streamlined tool that will be open-source and free, helping small companies and teams avoid the complexity and cost of commercial design tools.

Sylvester adds that the Michigan team is the model for what the IDEA program is looking to spur in the future: “Small design teams able to produce complex pieces of silicon with tailored functions.”