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posted by martyb on Thursday July 22, @01:30PM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]

PlasticArm is a functional, non-silicon, flexible Cortex-M0 microcontroller

Four years ago, we wrote about PragmatIC's ultrathin and flexible plastic electronics circuit, with news that an ultra-cheap ARM Cortex M0 MCU made of plastic materials was coming soon.

In this case, "soon" means about four years, but Arm has now finally announced PlasticArm, an ultra-minimalist, fully functional Cortex-M0-based SoC, with 128 bytes of RAM and 456 bytes of ROM that, with 18,000 gates, is twelve times more complex than previous state-of-the-art flexible electronics.

[...] There are two main advantages of PlasticArm. First, It's flexible and integrated into paper, plastic, or metal foil substrates. It's also much cheaper to mass-produce with Arm saying it would cost less than 1/10th the cost of silicon in 2017. That means ultra-low-cost PlasticArm microcontrollers would become commercially viable in new use cases include flexible smart sensors, smart labels, and intelligent packaging. Arm especially sees great potential in the healthcare sector and for the reduction of food waste.

[...] It's also really slow at this time, as the paper reads PlasticARM is fully functional up to 29 kHz at 3V and 40 kHz at 4.5V.

We probably still have a few years before flexible Arm microcontrollers become available as more research is needed to lower power consumption and improve the solution as a whole.

Coming soon to a stamp near you?

Journal Reference:
John Biggs, James Myers, Jedrzej Kufel, et al. A natively flexible 32-bit Arm microprocessor [open], Nature (DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03625-w)


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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @01:47PM (12 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @01:47PM (#1159111)

    Can you even fit a hello world?

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @02:05PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @02:05PM (#1159116)

      You can fit a lot into a small space.

      https://youtu.be/1UzTf0Qo37A [youtu.be]

      The real question is how much power these consume. They're going to have to operate in environments where they pull power from stray radio waves. The high voltage required isn't necessarily a showstopper, but it's not a good sign

    • (Score: 1, Touché) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @02:09PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @02:09PM (#1159117)

      >> Can you even fit a hello world?

      Yes, as long as it isn't written in Rust.

    • (Score: 5, Insightful) by Opportunist on Thursday July 22, @02:42PM

      by Opportunist (5545) on Thursday July 22, @02:42PM (#1159124)

      Assuming that it's using the 16bit mode, you probably have room for about 200 assembler instructions. That may not sound like a lot, but it is actually surprisingly much if you know what you're doing.

      I know it's gone out of fashion to actually be frugal with the resources you have because we're used to just slapping on another 16 gigs if we run out of space, but the ancients here will probably remember a time when knowing how to cut 2 instructions from a code made or broke the projects.

    • (Score: 4, Informative) by DannyB on Thursday July 22, @03:08PM (2 children)

      by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Thursday July 22, @03:08PM (#1159130) Journal

      In 1975, the original Altair 8800 came with only 256 bytes. You had to buy memory expansion boards if you wanted to upgrade to, say 1 K. Or 2K, 4K, or OMG!!! 16 K bytes!

      --
      Never use a needlessly simple solution to a problem when a much more complex solution would suffice.
      • (Score: 5, Interesting) by FatPhil on Thursday July 22, @03:51PM (1 child)

        It does seem like it's aimed at the microcontroller market, where one simple program with a tiny footprint is run forever. That's what the commercial users want. But it's terribly boring. That processor has more CPU than a ZX Spectrum or a BBC Model B, for pity's sake, it's a shame not to be able to make use of it. Being a generalised CPU core was clearly overkill, there were dumber designs that they could have used if all they were going to do was microcontroller-type trivialities.

        However, what's done is done - let the 456+256B demo comps begin!
        --
        I know I'm God, because every time I pray to him, I find I'm talking to myself.
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 23, @06:41PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 23, @06:41PM (#1159449)

          A PIC12 could fit 304 instructions in that much ROM and I don't think the transistor count would be any higher. I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason they didn't test bending the chip while running is that it crashes when you do that.

    • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Thursday July 22, @03:22PM (5 children)

      by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Thursday July 22, @03:22PM (#1159132) Journal

      You might be able to build a 4 function calculator in 456 bytes of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM.

      Maybe also: A TV remote. A digital thermometer. Thermostat. In-junction-box light switch. Electric power usage meter. Bomb timer with 7-seg LED readout.

      --
      Never use a needlessly simple solution to a problem when a much more complex solution would suffice.
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @04:21PM (3 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @04:21PM (#1159145)

        Those are mostly IOT applications and 456 bytes of ROM simply isn't enough for the telemetry code, let alone the unprotected internet-facing server.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @07:10PM (1 child)

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @07:10PM (#1159189)

          So they're not going to ARM bears?

          • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Friday July 23, @12:39AM

            by c0lo (156) Subscriber Badge on Friday July 23, @12:39AM (#1159292) Journal

            They already have plastic guns, plastic bears but they don't yet have plastic rights. So, no, they're not going to.

            --
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoFiw2jMy-0
        • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Thursday July 22, @07:43PM

          by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Thursday July 22, @07:43PM (#1159204) Journal

          I was specifically thinking of NON IoT applications because of the severe limitations.

          --
          Never use a needlessly simple solution to a problem when a much more complex solution would suffice.
      • (Score: 2) by SomeGuy on Thursday July 22, @05:39PM

        by SomeGuy (5632) on Thursday July 22, @05:39PM (#1159166)

        But, but, but, but, what about the terabytes of advertising? How do you let users do retarded shit with it from their cell phones? How can it zucker up user's private data? And how are you supposed to hold users hostage until they cough up shitcoin? If it can't be used to create seizure inducing animations and sell cell phones, then it obviously isn't good for anything! :P

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @10:09PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @10:09PM (#1159258)

    From the article:
    " It's also really slow at this time, as the paper reads PlasticARM is fully functional up to 29 kHz at 3V and 40 kHz at 4.5V."

    That's an understatement. A late 1970s 8-bit CPU would run at at least 1 MHz!
    The current configuration of plastic CPU is not useful because with that low of a clock rate, you aren't going to get much done. Anything more than an 8-bit processor at those clock frequencies is unusable functionality.

    • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 23, @01:43PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 23, @01:43PM (#1159394)

      At less than 100kHz, that processor doesn't require FCC certification to be used in any application.

      Meaning you can buy those en-mass, program up your device, and unless some peripheral runs at more than 100kHz, you're good to go with none of that pesky lab certification.

      Expect to see these in a LOT of places very rapidly.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @10:41PM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 22, @10:41PM (#1159267)

    I mean, great for them. Respect, and all that.

    But surely there are other old microcontroller designs that would have taken fewer transistors and left more for data?

    Wouldn't even a Z80 have taken less? Can one of our resident hardware gurus comment? I'd have liked to see an embedded FORTH environment, at least.

    • (Score: 2) by shortscreen on Friday July 23, @05:16AM

      by shortscreen (2252) Subscriber Badge on Friday July 23, @05:16AM (#1159339) Journal

      Z80: ~9000 transistors
      128 bytes of static RAM and 456 bytes of mask ROM: ~10000 transistors

      ARM Cortex M0... I'm guessing 30000 to 70000 transistors

    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Dr Spin on Friday July 23, @06:23AM (2 children)

      by Dr Spin (5239) on Friday July 23, @06:23AM (#1159351)

      If you want the least number of gates (and you WILL want to eliminate Bill), then the answer
      is the PDP8 - about 1,000 gates. Its 12 bit, so 50% more throughput per instruction than 8 bits.
      Instructions typically require 3 clock cycles (fetch-defer-execute). Separate I/O and memory
      spaces mean slow peripherals don't slow the CPU, and choice of single cycle or three cycle DMA
      means you can trade low thoughput for fewer gates but still have DMA if you want.

      One legend was that Ken Olsen asked MIT do design the smallest collection of gates that could act
      as a computer. Another was that the design was intended as a tool for testing the concept of
      core memory. Alternatively Edson de Castro did it all.

      There are only 8 instructions to learn which makes it dead easy to write assembler but hard to
      write high level languages for. As others have said before me - if the amount of RAM is tiny, you
      probably don't want a HLL any where near it.

      Optically isolated RS232 should be easy. I am not sure how you can embed a paper tape reader
      in cloth, I am sure someone will figure it out!

      Far more appropriate for the task than Arm.

      --
      Warning: Opening your mouth may invalidate your brain!
      • (Score: 2) by agr on Friday July 23, @09:37AM (1 child)

        by agr (7134) Subscriber Badge on Friday July 23, @09:37AM (#1159377)

        Not a crazy idea. With PDP-8 architecture, one could presumably have a lot more RAM and ROM. Applications requiring extremely cheap processors can amortize the cost of assembly language and there is a small C compiler available. One could envision paper certificates or plastic disks with a low value crypto currency coin embedded. Or event tickets that store a certain amount of credits. Skin patches that monitor UV exposure. Etc.

        • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 23, @03:51PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 23, @03:51PM (#1159417)

          I'd take a PDP-8 on those terms. Not fast, but very functional, decent throughput, a proven design, and one presumably could fit a FORTH interpreter on it with all the transistors saved by not implementing an ARM.

  • (Score: 2) by corey on Thursday July 22, @11:59PM

    by corey (2202) on Thursday July 22, @11:59PM (#1159281)

    First point I wanted to make, great that it’s flexible, now we just need flexible caps, resistors, DC regulators, oscillator chips, external flash, etc that’s needed to get a working board together.

    Secondly, that 256 bytes can only lead to geek challenges to get a foreign government backdoor into it somewhere, or, a demo:

    https://hackaday.com/2020/04/21/a-jaw-dropping-demo-in-only-256-bytes/ [hackaday.com]

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