June 7, 2004
Chandler-based semiconductor maker Microchip Technologies said it has created the world’s smallest microcontroller, a development that could bring miniature electronics to devices that have never used them before.
The new microcontroller is about the size of an ant and will be priced at 49 cents when purchased in bulk, the company said.
"Due to the fact that this microcontroller is so small and costs so little, it opens the possibility . . . to do things that were previously not feasible," said spokesman Eric Lawson.
For example, he said engineers are testing the possibility of using such "intelligent disposable electronics" for devices like a pregnancy tester that can display a "yes" or "no" instead of the color system in use today.
Another possibility: Fireworks that could be cheaply and accurately programmed to ignite at the right moment for precision displays.
Microcontrollers are chips that are embedded in an electronic device and control its functioning but are not visible to the user of the product. In recent years they have become ubiquitous; the average person every day uses more than 100 microcontroller-enhanced products as thermostats, copying machines, telephones and TV remote controls. The average car has about 25.
The small controllers being introduced by Microchip perform relatively simple tasks, but they can serve well for simple products that can be programmed to perform better, Lawson said.
"We are creating new markets at the bottom," he said.
For example, a possible use could be in light-emitting diodes of bright intensity for indicator lights in cars and LED flashlights, said Steve Drehobl, vice president of the company’s Security, Microcontroller and Technology Development Division.
They also could make cooling fans inside personal computers run more efficiently or operate as a "watchdog" for other more complex chips to warn if they are about to fail, he said.
But Drehobl said the biggest market could be for socalled "electronic glue." In that kind of an application, the small controller could be placed in a corner of a circuit board that would otherwise be wasted space and would be available to correct a glitch in another component or provide an additional function without the need for an expensive redesign.
The need to redesign a product "happens more often than you think," he said.
Microchip will be able to sell the new controllers at low cost because they can be produced using the company’s current equipment, avoiding the need for expensive retooling, Drehobl said.
"Our (chip) designers had to work closely with our production people to make the smallest (microcontroller) without new equipment," he said.
The new device, called the PIC10F 8-bit Flash microcontroller, is available in sample quantities, and full production is scheduled to begin in August. Initially the silicon chips will be made at the company’s semiconductor facility in Tempe, and packaging and testing will take place at a Microchip plant in Asia.