Electronics market in India is seeing its biggest boom ever. The country is expected to become a $400 billion industry by the end of 2020, largely due to the high demand for electronic devices in the country. As the statistics suggest, India accounts up for more than 10-percent of total imports, second only to petroleum products. In this era of technological developments, one of the most important electronic equipment that is almost always imported is the microprocessor–the ‘brain’ of an electronic device.
A microprocessor is an integrated circuit containing a few millions of transistors (semiconductor-based electronic devices), fused on a semiconductor chip. It is just a few millimeters in size and is a part of almost every electronic device, including microwave and washing machine in homes to advanced supercomputers of the space station. Since manufacturing microprocessors is not an easy task as it requires much capital, risk, and skills. Ergo, only a few companies globally have been able to manufacture and sell microprocessor successfully.
In order to mark their name in the highly competitive microprocessor manufacturing, engineers from IIT Bombay have developed a microprocessor called AJIT, marking the first ever microprocessor to be conceptualized, designed, developed, and manufactured in India. This new development could not only reduce the import rates in the country but could also help make India self-reliable in terms of electronic markets.
AJIT has helped for the first time in the history of India for the industry, academia and the government to come together. Professor Madhav Desai, along with 9 other researchers from IIT Bombay, has designed and developed the processor entirely at the institute. The project was funded by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and IIT Bombay. A Mumbai-based company, called Powai Labs has also been included in the venture through an investment and has promised to own, market and support the product. “I am thankful to Dr. Debashish Dutta of MeitY for championing this project and to Reapan Tikoo of Powai Labs for supporting the project financially and as an industry partner,” says Prof Desai acknowledging the contributions of the partner institutions.
Not unlike the microprocessors present today, AJIT comes with an arithmetic logic unit that can achieve basic computational tasks such as addition, subtraction, and comparison, and has a memory management unit that stores data from memory. The engineers have also provided the microprocessor with a debugger unit to help those who would want to program the processor in monitoring and controlling it.
Unlike the processors used in desktops like Intel Xeon, AJIT is a medium-sized processor. Its uses can range from integration in a set-top-box, in order to authenticate it with parental control to traffic light controller or even robotic systems. Researchers are hopeful that the processor will sell at as less as ₹100 when it is mass produced. AJIT can run one instruction per clock cycle and can operate at a clock speed of 70Mhz-120Mhz.
The software tools associated with AJIT have been made available by the researchers free of cost. The processor is also available as ‘softcore’, that allows vendors to buy a license to use the design of the microprocessor and use it in their systems. Prof Desai and his team of students—C. Arun, M. Sharath, Neha Karanjkar, Piyush Soni, Titto Anbadan, Ashfaque Ahmed, Aswin Jith, Ch. Kalyani, Nanditha Rao–used a tool called AHIR-V2, which is capable of turning the algorithm into hardware and which was developed entirely at IIT Bombay to design the circuit of the microprocessor.
At the first stage, AJIT was developed in the government-owned semiconductor laboratory (SCL), Chandigarh, using a technology that offers the smallest building block of the size 180 nanometers. The researchers are also looking forward to manufacturing the processor commercially using more advanced technology that provides the smallest building blocks of size 65 nm or 45 nm.
“The challenge was to structure and partition the design in a way suitable to be implemented in this setup. To enable early testing, we created a computer-based model of the processor that could simulate the functionality of the processor in detail. This made testing the processor possible, much before it was fabricated,” recalls Prof. Desai.
“For AJIT, we need to get more people to use it. Primary tests have indicated that the specifications of the processor match many in the competition and the new processor would also be cost-competitive. If the business community at large would own this processor, build systems around it so that users, as well as supporters, see value in this and can make money from the effort, then this effort can remain sustainable”, says Prof. Desai.
“We could push the usage of this new microprocessor by introducing it as a part of the syllabus in engineering colleges. A well-designed single-board computer system could be made available at a low cost for students and other enthusiasts to experiment with”, he adds.