2015 Top Embedded Innovators: T.J. Rodgers, President and CEO, Cypress Semiconductor Corp.

June 01, 2015

2015 Top Embedded Innovators: T.J. Rodgers, President and CEO, Cypress Semiconductor Corp.

Rodgers greatly simplified embedded design with Cypress' PSoC programmable system-on-chip and supporting PSoC Creator integrated development environme...

Rodgers greatly simplified embedded design with Cypress’ PSoC programmable system-on-chip and supporting PSoC Creator integrated development environment and PSoC Components. Rodgers also drove Cypress’ creation of its SONOS (Silicon Oxide Nitride Oxide Silicon) embedded flash memory and the licensing of this IP for MCUs and a broad range of applications. Embedded Computing Design asked Rodgers about addressing the challenges to innovation, how to be an innovator and recognize areas for potential innovation, and what he sees as the next big market and technologies for embedded computing.


What are the largest obstacles to innovation in the embedded space, and how should those challenges be solved?

Cypress solicits and records customer input in a number of very specific ways. Our customers consistently tell us that the top two challenges to innovation are making products that are easier to use and reducing time-to-market – both ours and theirs.

We address ease of use by creating complete solutions, which include not only our chips but also the software, kits, reference designs, application notes, datasheets, and technical support required for our customers to succeed. Each of these supporting elements must be intuitive to the design engineer and defect-free.

For example, our PSoC® Creator™ software, the Integrated Design Environment for our PSoC programmable system-on-chip solutions and our capacitive-sensing products, has a graphical interface that simplifies or even eliminates the firmware coding process. We relentlessly regression test PSoC Creator and its embedded firmware to identify and eliminate bugs before we make it available to our customers.

Our customers’ ease of use is in the forefront when we make decisions about whether to build or buy IP. Cypress has gravitated in recent years toward the use of ARM cores, which have enabled our customers to take advantage of the accessible, affordable ARM ecosystem. It was not by coincidence that we merged recently with Spansion, a company that has also adopted a complementary group of ARM cores.

At the chip-design level, we require our designers to use known-good Cypress IP blocks if they exist, rather than design IP from scratch. This helps us to create compatible families of products. The blocks from Cypress’s IP library – such as those that address our customers’ needs for flexible, high-speed interconnects and fast, reliable memory subsystems – connect seamlessly to a memory-mapped I/O bus, which in turn connects seamlessly to the standard ARM bus. This approach to chip design has cut our design time to less than one quarter from spec to tapeout.

In terms of time to market, products that are programmable with flash memory provide our customers with a big advantage. They can be reprogrammed at any point in the production cycle – even after they are soldered on the PCB. When it comes to programmability, PSoC, which is both an embedded design platform and an integrated, one-chip, mixed-signal solution, is Cypress’s secret sauce. Unlike an ordinary fixed-function MCU, the IP blocks in PSoC are configurable. For example, an A-to-D converter is register-configurable to trade off sample rate vs. precision. The 20-bit option is precise but slower, while the 12-bit option is fast. Configuring the A-to-D “component” (which we think of as an embedded MSI chip) actually configures registers to customize hardware and downloads a subroutine to the ARM core memory to create a fully functional A-to-D subsystem, not a dumb peripheral. PSoC also contains programmable logic. All this work is performed in minutes on a GUI with no coding required.

Finally, on the manufacturing side, we attack time to market with a fab that produces first silicon in 0.7 days per mask layer and an “Autoline” robotic assembly that takes in sawed wafers and delivers fully packaged and tested units on tape and reel in 12 hours. With this capability, we quote 4.3-week lead times with 99.5 percent on-time delivery.

How do you stay on the leading edge of innovation, rather than just following the embedded crowd?

Programmable products have been a big differentiator for us. For that reason, we have continued to invest in programmable process technologies and in PSoC. We programmed an off-the-shelf PSoC to quickly jump into the touch business for smartphones. Apple used it to help enable its first iPod scroll wheel interface. PSoC derivatives helped Cypress to become the industry’s No. 1 provider of capacitive touch-sensing solutions and enabled us to integrate the transceiver for the new USB Type-C standard into a new, single-chip USB solution in just a matter of weeks. Because the EZ-PD™ CCG1 USB Type-C port controller was first to market, the top-tier PC and cable manufacturers using it now have a leg up in the race to bring their own products to market.

How do you recognize when a new technology or application is one your company should invest/innovate in, versus a technology that will experience fast burnout?

At the end of the day, the market determines winners and losers. The market created the demand for touch technology and a new generation of USB connectivity solutions. Programmability simply enabled us to get our solutions to market more quickly.

Beyond that, Cypress is a process- and data-driven company with precise ROI standards for new products and new markets. We evaluate very carefully how our capabilities match up with opportunities. We move worthy opportunities that fall outside our short-term profitability model into our Emerging Technologies Division (ETD). Cypress funds the companies in this division in much the same way that a venture-capital firm bankrolls a startup.

ETD currently includes AgigA Tech, which develops high-density, battery-free non-volatile memories, and Deca Technologies, which has pioneered an approach to wafer-level packaging and interconnect technology. Some ETD businesses wash out, but others are home runs, such as Cypress MicroSystems, which created PSoC, and SunPower Corp., which we spun out in 2008 to deliver a $2.7 billion dividend to Cypress shareholders.

In the next 5 years, which embedded technologies, applications, markets, and geographic areas present the most interesting opportunities?

The automotive market represents our single greatest opportunity. The market for automotive chips is growing about 50 percent faster than the broader market. Our merger with Spansion positions Cypress as the No. 3 provider of memories and MCUs to the automotive market with a focus on many of the fastest-growing segments, such as infotainment, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), and instrument clusters.

Luxury cars rolling off assembly lines have up to 150 MCUs, but the demand for advanced functionality and the chips to enable it has been moving steadily into the mainstream automotive market. The most advanced automotive systems also require SRAM and NOR flash memories – two categories that Cypress and Spansion, respectively, have dominated for many years.

T.J. Rodgers is Founder, President, CEO, and a director of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation. He founded Cypress in 1982 and took it public in 1986. He is a former chairman of the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and SunPower Corp. (solar energy systems), and he currently sits on the boards of directors of high-technology companies, including Agiga Tech (nonvolatile RAMs) and Bloom Energy (fuel cells). He is a Trustee Emeritus of Dartmouth College, his alma mater.

Monique DeVoe, Managing Editor