Experience gives us the ability to make better decisions and in a fast moving industry like semiconductors, experience is critical. As chips get more integrated and complex the number of design decisions that must be made increases at a dramatic rate. Process technologies for example, never in the history of semiconductors have we had more processes to choose from: 28nm – HP, -HPM, -LP, -HPC, -HPC+, or -ULP? 22nm -CMOS, -FD-SOI, or -FinFETs? How about 16nm, 14nm, 12nm, 10nm, 8nm, 7nm, 6nm, etc…? And don’t get me started on Design IP! Given the numerous decisions that need to be made, this CEO interview is a must read as it has more than 30 years of advanced semiconductor design services behind it, absolutely.
How have the challenges of bringing an IC to market changed from when Intrinsix started 30 years ago to today?
30 years ago, in 1987, Intrinsix first few customers were struggling with much the same things that our current customers debate – questions such as What can be integrated?, How much will it cost?, and How long will it take? But since then, while everyone knows that SO much more can be integrated, there have been two additional dimensions of complexity layered on top. First, the technology choices have expanded from a handful of options – to currently dozens of processes, companies, and… we should include the extraordinary effect of the FPGA options… all of this has created a bewildering array of price-performance tradeoffs. Secondly, in the 1980’s, the industry was dominated by a small number of vertically integrated companies, supplying solutions from design through to finished IC products and systems even, but disaggregation has changed all of that. Economic forces have driven specialization in each segment of the supply chain from design to finished product. Options have proliferated but customers of new or custom IC devices must now navigate a dynamic and challenging maze of suppliers, each with a focus or specialty, each with a desire to maximize profit on their slice of the solution. Quite a different landscape when you add these factors or dimensions.
What barriers do you see for future growth and innovation?
The internet ensures an almost level playing field of information which, in turn, offers a fantastic opportunity for growth and innovation. More than at any time in the past. The barriers of “who you know” and “what you know” continue to lower while the layers of hardware and software building blocks proliferate. Sure, it can be a challenge to choose and assemble the correct pieces of hardware and software to achieve something new and you will likely need to customize some parts to differentiate your new product, but there are so many options to choose from! So the barriers to future growth and innovation are really now about access to the money and assembling teams just in time to bring ideas to market faster than the competition. But so many new and wonderful products don’t make it to market because it is just so darn expensive and hard to get it all right the first time and then climb over the chasm of product introduction and make it to volume revenue and profits. From my experience, innovators should double their estimates for time and money and then they will be about halfway to where they need to be.
What is it like working with Intrinsix?
The one word that describes what it is like for customers is consistency. For the last 2 decades, ever since we embraced Project Management as a necessary function, every engagement has the same 3 interface points: Business Development, Technical Leadership, and Project Management. These 3 people may change but there are always 3 and their roles synchronize such as in the way we discuss new potential engagements, how we frame the solutions, and the way in which we create functional teams and schedules that meet the needs of our customers. From initial contact through to chips that work reliably within their end-customers’ systems, our customers get a consistent interface.
Can you talk more about your phased approach to project planning and execution?
A great question and it follows perfectly on my comments about consistency. Here is the thing: If you are considering doing something that has never been done before, which may or may not use new tools, a new process and new IP – it is best to do some serious planning and research in an early phase. Equally important, today’s ICs tend to be super-complicated so writing down what you need/want cannot be skipped…. Or you might get something you don’t need/want. Finally, and here is where the rubber meets the road – a very specific plan for verification is required BEFORE design begins in earnest. A small set of our customers really does not need a phased approach, possibly because they have done all of this but most are still talking to their end-customers, still deciding on trade-offs and still wondering what kind of performance-power-schedule-expense options are best to consider. So, yes, Intrinsix customer success depends on a phased approach, regardless of the urgency. Going fast to the wrong place is not helpful. But throughout the early, middle, and late phases of any IC design – professional project management and savvy technical leadership keep things on track and well-communicated between all of the stakeholders.
What advice would you give to companies contemplating their first IC?
Creating a new Integrated Circuit is a terribly expensive thing to do. It may seem counter-intuitive that I would say this but companies should look hard for alternatives such as using existing chips or making things work in software – simply because the cost, especially at or near state-of-the-art, can be astronomical. Underestimation of the time and expense is endemic to the electronics industry for good reason – the numbers add up so fast that no one wants to believe it could take THAT long or cost THAT much. But it does. So the most important advice here is, whether or not you have hired experts who “know the industry”, get out and talk to suppliers who have some independence and knowledge of alternative solutions within the IC space and within your own vertical markets. Companies such as Intrinsix can use any tool, work with any foundry and manage the process from architectural hardware/software trade-offs to finished, packaged chips – so that vision and experience with today’s offerings lets us help companies choose the path that optimizes their profitability over the short and long term.
Final thoughts for our readers?
Because Intrinsix is fortunate enough to have customers at leading-edge semiconductor companies as well as ground-breaking DoD entities like DARPA, we are uniquely positioned to see some aspects of the future of electronics – and I can tell you it is very exciting! Just as important as the technologies coming from those entities, are the new ideas, research and real world solutions coming from foundries, EDA tool companies, IP providers, and packaging firms and others in this fast moving industry. But let’s also not forget though that as fast as this industry moves, the risks multiply (just like the transistors in a chip) with the numbers of moving parts and players. So I would encourage your readers to be excited yet wary. While fortune will always favor the bold in an industry that is this dynamic I would suggest that the bold will stay fortunate by being aware that complexity breeds opportunities and risks at the same rate.