Semiconductor Design Flows: Paranoia or Prudence

Semiconductor Design Flows: Paranoia or Prudence
by Steve Moran on 02-28-2011 at 11:34 am

I was recently talking to a friend who works for a semiconductor company (I can’t tell you which one or how big it is. I am not even sure I can tell you that he/she works for a semiconductor company.) I was describing to him/her and this person thought it was a great concept but wondered how much of the site would be focused on custom design. He/she wished there was more open discussion about techniques and tools used in custom design. Here is the problem and he/she described it:

1. There are relatively few companies that do custom IC design as a result, compared to the number of ASIC design teams there are only a small number of custom design teams. Finally this means that there are relatively few custom designers.

2. Custom designers and design teams typically work on the most important, most secretive, most costly and potentially the most profitable parts of a chip or system, in other words the crown jewels of the company.

3. In an effort to protect these highly competitive pieces of technology, almost universally, the companies that do custom designs have a complete embargo, on sharing any information about their designs and even their design flows.

4. Typically these information embargoes are so restrictive that even mentioning that the company uses a given tool or technique becomes a firing offense.

I find myself thinking this is secrecy gone amok.

There is no question that technology area is fiercely competitive; that the stakes run into billions of dollars; That being first to market with something like an iphone, or ipad can be worth billions of dollars and needs to be protected. Yet the question still remains, do those companies really gain when they refuse to share basic information about the nuts and bolts of their design flows, their design bottlenecks and their design tools?

I would argue that the competitive advantage comes not from these flow “secrets” but rather from pure differentiated technology, which is a combination of hardware, software and concept or idea, plus brilliant demand creation marketing. What ends up happening is that these companies end up wasting millions of dollars recreating, reinventing the basics. It means that every single time there is a fundamental/foundational problem each company spends hundreds to thousands of man hours figuring out how to solve what are really basic problems, that ultimately everyone solves in one fashion or another. That each company evaluates multiple tools that solve the same problem without a clue as to whether or not it has worked or failed for other companies.

What I find so puzzling is that given the enormous expense of building up a flow, evaluating and selecting tools, direct and indirect engineering costs, plus the inherent risk of producing a new product or device, how little interest there is in sharing the basics. Do have this right or wrong?

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