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Design in the Time of COVID

Design in the Time of COVID
by Bernard Murphy on 05-26-2020 at 6:00 am

There’s a lot of debate about how and when we are going to emerge from the worldwide economic downturn triggered by the pandemic. Everyone agrees we will emerge. This isn’t humanity’s first pandemic, nor will it be our last. But do we come out quickly or slowly? And what does the economy look like on the other side, particularly for the domain we care about – electronic design?

Fortune teller-covid-design

The balance of opinion I have seen comes out on the side of a slow recovery. We’re still at least 18 months away from a vaccine that might allow a return to the heady pre-COVID days. Before we get there, early indications are that no matter how eager politicians may be to restart the economy, consumers are going to be a lot more cautious. If we have more repeats of hotspots and lockdowns, that caution is going to become more embedded in our psyches. Worse yet, many of us are going to have a lot less discretionary income. It’s going to take time to get the people who lost jobs back into the workforce and making at least what they were making in 2019.

This has to have some effect on chip and system design. In some areas a positive effect – anything supporting remote work will benefit, particularly datacenters (just look at Intel’s recent performance). Advances in transportation are less clear. I’d guess for at least a year, maybe more, travel restrictions will still be fairly vigorous and we’ll be much more eager to safely distance than have in-person meetings. Companies will like this, too – lower marketing and sales support overhead. Full autonomy in cars was already looking like a long-term bet; I can’t see these changes speeding up that transition. Smartphones, our portable computers, will still do well as will wireless infrastructure (supporting all this increased traffic). Health wearables, if they actually work, could be promising.

Other stuff – cameras, GoPros, scooters, drones, etc., etc. – not so much. Thank our restricted range, also our restricted bank accounts. There’ll still be some applications, e.g. drones for policing, but consumer volume will drop. Even city, county, state and federal spending will drop. We have to pay off that $2T+ somehow, and that with reduced tax revenues. We consumers will pay for what we absolutely must have – remote connectivity, but not clear we’ll have a lot left over after we’ve paid for that. Some design-start volume has to shrink here, quite likely shifting to new health-centric and other COVID-triggered applications.

Now this is just my view. I could be wrong in details, very likely I am. But it’s difficult to believe that while the rest of the economy collapses around us, everything will still be just peachy in chip design and we can carry on doing everything the way we always have. It seems more likely we’ll have to adapt, quite possibly quickly. No problem, we’re used to that.

In the process we’re going to have to re-examine what are our core strengths and what are our weaknesses. We need staffing in new areas (AI, health, …) and that has to come from existing staffing. Is there some part of the operation adding $2-3M in cost per year and limiting new product introductions because that function can handle only 1-2 designs per year? Is there another way we could do that which might cost less and would allow us to spin 5-10 designs per year?

Kurt Shuler (VP Marketing at Arteris IP) has an answer. He tells me there are still a number of good-sized product companies building and maintaining their own on-chip interconnect IP. Not because those fabrics are provably better NoCs – evals against Arteris tend to prove otherwise – but because the need to control the NoC in-house has become axiomatic, not permitting challenge.

The best way to approach such cases unemotionally is through an ROI analysis, comparing costs, turn-times and risk for the in-house approach versus a 3rd party solution. Arteris IP developed a spreadsheet analysis which will do those calculations for you. You can plug in your own numbers: Volumes, price per chip, cost per chip, time taken in each phase of development, area overhead, etc. This spreadsheet was developed with a major semiconductor company facing similar problems. Well-grounded in their view of reality, not an IP marketing view.

You might want to check this out. You can download the spreadsheet from HERE.


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