Give Us Specs, Take the Chip
Sanjeev Jain and Sohini Bagchi
Monday, November 27, 2006
With over 130 multinationals and domestic players operating in India, today chip designing today has become a promising industry. The SmartTechie team met over 50 semiconductor experts and interestingly most of them assert that today a chunk of the chips are designed and delivered—if not defined—from India.

Analog all the way
Analog is one of the exciting segments in semiconductors. The expertise required for analog designing is scarce while the demand is escalating, and companies are scrambling to hire every available engineer.

Research shows that India has just about 10,000 chip designers and analog designers are even fewer at around 1000. This number is throwing up greater challenges to analog companies. In fact, out of 1500 Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) engineers India produces every year, less than one percent have analog design skills, and hence there is a huge opportunity for Indian engineers to focus on analog. Demand is further accelerated
with the fact that there is a dearth of analog talent in both China and Taiwan.

The presence of Texas Instruments and ST Microelectronics in India for more than a decade has dramatically increased the sophistication of work. Today cutting edge designs and products in analog are being developed in the country. Some companies are working on 65nm analog designs and these complex designs are now done in 1V supply. They are also faced with challenges to create designs with more cost effective technologies.

For starters, unlike digital designing where tools can be of help, analog depends more on the engineer’s intuitiveness that comes only with years of experience. Analog designs cannot be automated as easily as digital and hence tools are of little help. The various tools available for analog design are quite similar. So experience in any particular tool might not be crucial as only skill sets matter.

One would need skill sets like control systems, device engineering, device physics, circuit theory, operational amplifiers and transistor level design. An analog engineer with about 3-5 years experience in the industry would have some expertise on the design of major portions of a chip like receiver or transmitter design and hardware verification.

As the industry is striving to enhance products, there are emerging trends like RF designs at 5 GHz, Digital Power, High Speed Data Converters and 10GBPS + SERDES (Serializer and Deserializer) adding to this challenge.

Step into the digital world
Today as more appliances become digitized, users are demanding additional features. Hence there is a need to have more sophisticated chips that control every function.

In digital design, which largely constitutes integrated circuits (ICs), field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and complete system-on-chips (SoC), engineers have a range of career options. One such area is the Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC), the market for which is globally pegged at $50 billion in 2006. ASIC design engineers need to have a good concept of logic design.

Companies look for expertise in specialized areas such as Static Timing Analysis (STA), Formal-Equivalence (FE), Synthesis, physical design and power analysis. Verification in ASIC is also an emerging area. Similarly, to get into FPGA, one should be proficient in VHDL, VerilogHDL, LabVIEW, Perl, C and C++.

With increased usage of wireless networks, digital-audio devices, Phase Locked Loops (PLL) and data-converters, career options in the mixed signal is growing rapidly. The trend is to gain better integration between process technology and design technology, which opens up a new career path for engineers. The process technologies for semiconductor fabrication are migrating to 90/65/45 nanometers from 0.13 micron. Continuously shrinking process geometries have induced entire SoC with millions of transistors on a single chip. This has necessitated the widespread acceptance of Layered Object Oriented verification techniques that enable timely verification of large complex SoCs.

Companies are also focusing on the development of intellectual property (IP) blocks for design and verification of complex SoC, which requires domain expertise. In addition, firms doing research and development in embedded firmware for SoCs: audio/video compression algorithms, protocol stacks and Real-Time Operating Systems require specialists both in analog and digital.

Though skills in the mixed domain are comparatively few, industry experts feel that the future may see the advent of analog effects in digital designs. At the same time, with shortage of skilled manpower continuing to remain a concern, currently, those who are mostly filling up this space are mostly the U.S. returnees, with years of experience in chip designing. But the industry needs more domestic talents. Hence, it is important to have industry-academia alliances, to introduce competent courseware and attract more techies in this technology-intensive industry.

Training-An ongoing process
The Department of Electronics in collaboration with IITs and IISC in the country are raising the institutional capability for the development of special manpower in the area of VLSI design, microelectronics, integrated electronics and circuits and mixed signal processing.

In addition, VLSI Society Of India (VSI) organizes short-term training seminars, technology focused symposiums and Skilled Manpower Development Programs (SMDP). Companies also encourage designers to pursue postgraduate programs (M.E/M.Tech/ M.S) in digital engineering or microelectronics from institutes, such as BITS Pilani, Veda IIT, Manipal Center for Information Science (MCIS), Sandeepani School of VLSI Design to name a few. These institutes offer corporate training, workshops and onsite-customized trainings as well.

Most EDA vendors like Magma Design Auto-mation, Synopsys and Cadence Design Systems organize symposiums on latest design tools. Techies should participate in these forums so as to understand the market trends and tools.

The industry counts on quality and depth and requires profound knowledge from the designer’s part to create and execute projects. It is important to be part of a team that delivers successful chips to end-customers. This takes time and a techie should hold on to a company for at least 4-5-years to graduate to the subsequent levels.

The Indian Semiconductor Association (ISA) estimates that the chip design sector, which currently has around 10,000 engineers, will require an additional 20,000 engineers in the next two years. This demand speaks of the ample career opportunities that one can look for in the sector.

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