Retooling talent: A silent revolution

Date:   Friday , February 01, 2008

The experience of the semiconductor industry in the U.S. indicates that university research has been one of the key factors of industry’s growth. India, that stood back in research for a couple of years, is now realizing that this stand has created a bottleneck for the Indian semiconductor industry’s growth and hampered the ability of the academia to meet industry demands.

India Semiconductor Association cites that there will be a shortage of 25,000 engineers in the VLSI industry by 2010. To fill the gap, most blue chip companies that started back in early 1990s in India are geared up to reach colleges to groom the ‘cub-engineers.’ However, it is not an easy task.

The VLSI society in its survey notes that every year less than 1,000 students graduate with bachelor’s degrees specialized in electrical and electronics engineering, i.e., less than one percent of graduating engineers in India possess industry-relevant skills. Though many companies today are collaborating with colleges to build talent pools, this has not solved the problem. ISuppli, a provider of industry market intelligence, in its survey finds that there is no adequate and relevant graduate-level design courses that are in pace with the progress. Added to this is the lack of qualified faculty. Today most of the qualified engineers get into the industry as they receive better remuneration there.

Further, many colleges cannot afford the infrastructure that meets the education demands of the industry. While the top technical institutes are strong in these areas with properly equipped labs and tools, regional colleges and private institutes fall short in infrastructure facilitites.

Xilinx CTO Ivo Bolsens asserts that the role of the industry is to be an active partner that educates the academic members in understanding the global system issues and to create a realistic agenda through intensive academics. However, the reality is contrary to this. “In India academic alliance is confined to the few walls of an auditorium wherein industry leaders share their viewpoints with students. Ground level interaction never happens,” says Prof. Sadagopan.

Still, some of the companies are attempting to germinate their initiatives to sprawl to the colleges by introducing contests, tools, funding research, providing training, and other initiatives. Companies like Cadence, Synopsys, and Texas Instruments are providing tools to educational institutions to make the students industry ready. For instance, Synopsys provides simulation tools for managing simulation tasks and analyzing simulation results. Similarly, Cadence offers flexible EDA tool bundles depending on the institutes’ curriculum requirements and spans over four major design platforms like Verification Platform, Digital IC Design Platform, Custom Design Platform, and Interconnect Platform.

To use these tools and train the students, most semiconductor companies have their own constraints to provide training to all colleges. Hence, the blue chip companies are adopting a model called ‘Train the Trainer program’. The companies are bringing in a third party to train the professors of the educational institutions. Synopsys in partnership with Digipro, and Texas Instruments (TI) in partnership with Cranes software, adopt a similar model. The companies create a single point contact center across various cities for other colleges in the regions to join the workshops. Cranes has setup over 450 TI Digital Signal Processing (DSP) labs at universities in India which work with several state education committees in defining DSP syllabi. It annually conducts over 300 small and large TI DSP workshops in India and trains over 2000 faculties. Apart from these initiatives, around 200 corporate trainers at Synopsys mentor and update the professors who are part of their academic program on the latest technology.

The mentoring and updates provided to the professors by the companies further drive the research activities in colleges. Poornima Shenoy, President, India Semiconductor Association, opines that it is imperative for us to have a sustained effort and strategy to promote and propagate semiconductor research in our R& D institutions. Bolsen also agrees that in fact, universities’ research can support semiconductor companies in different areas like image stabilization and many core areas.

Identifying the need, NXP semiconductors, Intel, and Applied Materials are funding open and collaborative research labs. Pravin Narwankar, CTO, Applied Materials India has picked up some research areas, collaborates with academic institutes, and sponsored research projects to translate technological ideas into applied research. The India Center already has a tie-up with IIT Bombay and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

NXP semiconductors is committed to spend $1.5 million on its academic program, over a period of five years. Also, Intel Research & Development Group, an internal group of Intel technical experts focused on breakthrough research, worked with universities across India, and has made project grants designed to advance key research areas.

Similarly, to drive innovation in areas such as digital signal processing, analog and mixed signals TI’s ‘Leadership University’ is partnering with 650 universities across the country. Recently, Indian Institute of Science is added to TI’s list of Leadership Universities. Under this program IISc will receive a funding of $400,000 over the next five years.

To showcase the new products, which are the result of the university academic initiatives, today companies are creating a platform through contests to encourage the spirit of innovation among the undergraduate and graduate students. Cadence Design Contest, ‘Student Design Contest: VLSI 2008’ organized by 21st VLSI conference, and TI Design Contest have become platforms for the companies to track the innovative talent from the colleges, using their respective tools. Cadence design contest was launched in December 2005. The annual contest challenges the graduate and undergraduate students to submit innovative Analog, Mixed signal, and Digital design projects.

If there is a similar kind of silent revolution taking place in discrete pockets of India’s semiconductor sector to build the talent continues, India’s current semiconductor industry growth in design services, which surpasses about $600 million per year, will definitely double the growth.