A Funny Thing Happened on the Way

May 08, 2019


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way

As integrated circuit design progressed from the early days of manual layout to complex SoCs and fully automated design systems, the end goal of the design effort was to reach tape out.

A funny thing happened on the way to growing complexity, smaller geometries, higher performance and lower power –– engineering groups began designing for systems and not just chips.

As integrated circuit design progressed from the early days of manual layout to complex SoCs and fully automated design systems, the end goal of the design effort was to reach tape out. Tape out marked the milestone where the design was handed-off to manufacturing and the engineering group could start on the next chip design project. From the standpoint of the design team, this customary approach was chip centric even though engineers designing the chips knew they were destined to be components in a system.

The chip engineers’ sole focus was getting designs taped out and released to manufacturing. While they necessarily spent some time considering how to fit the chip into a specified package and how it would interconnect with other devices and sensors in the system, the primary responsibility for the system was with the product design team. No one used IP cores in a design. In fact, third-party IP was non-existent. Software? That was the responsibility of a different group who had to write it to enable the chips and other components to meet the product engineering specifications.

That’s all changed. Today’s chip engineering groups have a broader charter that extends beyond tape out. The complexity of today’s electronic products and systems require collaboration between chip engineers, IP suppliers, packaging suppliers, component suppliers, software developers and manufacturing. Engineers can no longer think only in terms of chips. Their system-centric view must consider their role in the electronics product design and manufacturing chain. They have the added responsibility of ensuring that those components (both hardware and software) within a system function together can be manufactured. They are looking at the big picture –– that is, the entire electronic product manufacturing and supply chain –– not just tape out.

Undeniably, the move to a system-centric approach is sensible and long overdue. It enables smarter, faster, more powerful and more affordable electronic products. This new approach didn’t happen overnight. Credit goes to growing complexities of SoC designs with component subsystems of IP blocks and embedded software, and the profusion of small mobile device applications in need of higher performance and lower power. It also goes to the innovative new means of packaging systems such as 2.5D and 3D that bring together powerful systems physically smaller in size with lower power consumption.

Open source solutions and cloud-based design are new factors as well. Design in the cloud is changing how design and verification is done. Open source solutions such as RISC-V and the infrastructure being developed around it are changing perceptions about design and verification. Safety and security concerns dominate a large swath of the market. More than Moore and how Moore’s Law is advancing are occurring in ways that we didn’t anticipate. And, quantum computing is just over the horizon.

With a system-centric approach to design, formerly distinct disciplines across the $2-trillion global semiconductor product design and manufacturing supply chain align and demand a seamlessly integrated tool environment. The answer will come from the well-defined, 30-year-old ecosystem of electronic design automation (EDA) that is changing, too. It now embraces a more electronic system design perspective that includes IP, verification, packaging, PCB/interconnect, system analysis and design services. It also pulls in embedded software, a large component of the ecosystem because ultimately it is the software that orchestrates the billions of devices in the system to perform useful functions.

Who knows what will happen on the way to the next challenge, be it AI, automotive and medical safety and security or the end of Moore’s Law. For now, it will continue to be a system-centric approach driven by diverse markets, such as mobile, automotive, communications and medical.

About Bob Smith

Robert (Bob) Smith is Executive Director of the Electronic System Design Alliance (ESD Alliance), a SEMI Strategic Association Partner. He is responsible for the management and operations of the ESD Alliance, an international association of companies providing goods and services throughout the semiconductor design ecosystem.