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The Spartan flow for custom silicon: when losing is NOT an option.

The Spartan flow for custom silicon: when losing is NOT an option.
by Raul Perez on 01-19-2021 at 10:00 am

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Every so often a custom silicon socket comes up at a system company that you simply cannot afford to lose if you’re a silicon supplier. These are the types of custom silicon sockets that last for generations of a product, in huge and predictable volumes, and for whatever reason they may become available. It’s not easy to predict when a strategic change by a system company will force this to happen, or when your silicon supplier competitor simply screws up. But when it does happen you have to throw every possible tactic and strategy so you earn that spot.

There is no single “spartan flow” because there is no single type of silicon product. There is also no single type of system product. So what I want to do in this article is not to prescribe an exact formula for what a spartan flow is, but to communicate a mentality of how to create a spartan flow for your engagement.

The ancient Spartans were famous for having laws in their society configured to maximize military proficiency at all costs, focusing all social institutions on military training and physical development. The Spartans were willing to make the sacrifices needed to excel in battle, and break the will of their opponent. Just thinking about going against them was a burden on the minds of their enemies.

While there is no single spartan flow, there are areas of focus to any spartan flow plan.

These are the following:

  • Communication.

You need to establish effective lines of communication ASAP. It is critical that from day zero the silicon supplier develops the best communication systems possible between its own teams. Also communication needs to be strong with the system company. This enables the teams to focus on quick and effective action and reaction. The classic sales force engagement with the customer communicating through the sales channel with an FAE is usually nowhere near enough if you want to win like a Spartan. You need to go all the way possible, and provide a ticket system hosted by you, or suggest the system company starts their ticket system component early if they are willing to do it. The latter is more common since the system company usually wants to retain records of the tickets in their servers. You need to identify as soon as possible who are the stakeholders on the system company side that are critical to design in your silicon product, and you need to get them in touch with your stakeholders/engineers. This usually means who is the EE, the SW engineer, the FW engineer, etc… who needs to be in close collaboration with your engineers. Then make sure there is a ticket system, collaboration tools setup (like Google docs and Google sheets, etc…) for both teams to collaborate easily. You want their system engineers to get to know your engineers, and invest time with them working on issues and ideas.

  • Pre-silicon engagement.

The silicon supplier needs to find ways to help the system company engineers integrate their silicon product into the system as soon as possible. Right away the silicon supplier needs to engage the system company to come up with a plan of what types of deliverables the system company engineers would like to receive to get system development started even while the silicon is being designed. You need to enable the software and firmware engineers to start writing and debugging code so when your silicon shows up they have made good progress towards getting a good image they can use for a build. The silicon supplier needs to evaluate if building an FPGA board with analog peripherals would be beneficial for this opportunity. Propose delivering development boards, manually built prototype parts, etc… Bottom-line is this; get them working on your solution and investing time in it early.

  • Ensure to have a process to manage the custom silicon engagement.

CustomSilicon.com implements a process, and manages both the system and silicon companies such that there is a really strong connection between all teams, the deliverables are clearly communicated, and the development phases are signed off by all stakeholders. The intent is that there is cross functional and intra company alignment at every stage of the project. It is vital that this is implemented to avoid issues that could mean the silicon supplier loses the opportunity due to some miscommunication about a spec, or bug, etc…

  • Verification.

In most integration projects, you need to specialize the verification function into dedicated AMS and DV engineers that start writing models, test benches and tests as soon as the spec is started. Companies that try to re-use designers as they come off the design of their portions of the chip will not be able to beat a spartan flow company that has those functions specialized and working in parallel to the designers.

  • Quality of first samples, and timing.

The quality of first silicon samples is literally a matter of life or death. If two or more silicon suppliers are competing for a socket, there will be a strong preference to focus system company engineers on who delivers samples first. Then the next selector is who has the least amount of bugs or the least severe ones. If you submit silicon samples later than the other supplier, unless the other supplier has some major bugs in their silicon, you may have already lost the race. So you need to think about how you can deliver samples early and with good quality. This usually means you need to think about how to bring up your ATE quickly. One thing you could do is do a “functional only silicon” tape out; this is a tape out of the chip when it is functionally good but not meeting all specs, and then use this silicon to bring up your ATE earlier. Of course this means that your design team needs to be larger so that you can split the development at some point in time, and keep working on the fully spec compliant silicon tape out while the “functional only silicon” is being taped out. This also means that your mask set cost may double or at least you’ll usually need a full extra metal mask set. Other things to keep in mind are paralleling your verification (see previous point) to speed up the development process and increase your capability of catching bugs before silicon. You could try and develop ways to wafer probe without bumping to get data quicker and start debugging your silicon sooner, etc… You could also hold wafers at various stages of processing so you can quickly release new masks to fix bugs you find at the wafer probe and provide those samples quickly to replace previous versions. You can use OTP/MTP to develop clever ways to quickly spin new samples that fix issues. The types of tactics used are going to depend on the silicon product, but you get the idea, you need to shorten the design and test time while also increasing the quality of samples all at once.

  • Validation.

The quicker you can validate your silicon and find the bugs, the quicker you can start working on ECOs to fix them or on work arounds, and the quicker you can tape out to converge on final silicon. So automating bench testing, using ATE, developing FPGA test platforms, stress testing units with asynchronous combinations of inputs, validating samples from process corner wafers and testing those to check any weakness over process, etc… are all critical things to do to ensure you have the highest chance of success and don’t fall off the horse mid-race when some critical bug is found that is not present in your competitor’s silicon. Team specialization is key here to be able to have setups running regardless of the availability of the designers.

There are many ways to optimize your processes, and come up with a spartan flow. This is certainly not the type of development that would be usually economically desirable for standard opportunities. But when you get an opportunity to get into a huge volume system, and the revenue stream from that is likely to continue coming generation after generation, deploying this spartan flow mentality is certainly worth the money. However, it’s hard to switch teams from normal mentality to spartan mentality. So you probably need to create a team that will always work in spartan mode and find them opportunities to execute. It would be wise to perhaps rotate some or all of the people in the spartan team periodically so that others in your company can learn this spartan methodology without burning out.

About CustomSilicon.com by Digital Papaya Inc.

CustomSilicon.com is the leading consulting firm in the custom silicon strategy and project management space for AR/VR, automotive, mobile, server, crypto, sensors, security, medical, space and more.

Raul has 20 years of combined experience in the system electronics and silicon industries. He is currently responsible for major system company’s custom silicon and sensor projects with projects approaching 30 total chips. Raul was the directly responsible silicon manager for 18 chips ramped to mass production at Apple for iPhone and iPad, and 23 total chips ramped to mass production counting projects where he was an expert reviewer. Raul was directly responsible for the development of mobile processor System PMICs for the iPad2, New iPad, iPad mini, iPad 4 and iPhone 5s. Other silicon included, backlight/display power for iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s, lightning connector silicon and video buffers. He managed supplier teams across the Globe.

Our network of experts provide our clients with an A+ silicon management team from day one.

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