No Design is an Island

While electronics begins at design, historically design had been viewed as a separate and distinct activity from the manufacturing process. Semiconductor equipment manufacturers and device makers further down the supply chain were not considered part of the design “island” ecosystem. Once completed, a chip design was thrown over the wall to manufacturing and test –– or across an ocean to continue the metaphor. The designer was done and on to a new project. Those days are behind us.

Design as its own insulated activity is no longer feasible. The island mentality is changing rapidly as complexity grows with smaller geometries, higher performance and lower power and as the competitive stakes get higher. After all, successful chip design requires that the manufacturing processes consistently and reliably deliver parts that meet specifications as applied during design.

Increasingly, decisions made during design can have a great effect on what happens during manufacturing.

Attempts to move design off its island are nothing new. Neither are efforts to drive design closer to manufacturing. Process Design Kits (PDKs) were introduced about 10 years ago to put foundry and manufacturing information into the hands of designers so they could factor into their designs the nuances of the process. Design-for-Test (DFT), Optical Proximity Correction (OPC) and Resolution Enhancement Technologies (RET) followed then Design for Yield (DFY). All great ways to further assist designers but design continued to be isolated from the mainland action of manufacturing. In fact, many designers viewed these technologies as burdensome overhead tasks that did not contribute to the design itself.

The design island can be traced back to the early days of computer aided design (CAD) that quickly became known as electronic design automation (EDA). The early EDA solutions, mostly software, but often combined with specialized hardware, were developed specifically to automate and accelerate the chip design process, not manufacturing. This approach established design as its own domain distinct from manufacturing and was effective for 10 transistors through 10,000- to 100,000-transistors per chip design. And, well before billions of transistors on a chip, the advent of systems on chip (SoCs) and the sophistication of small process nodes.

During this time, the ecosystem for both the design and semiconductor segments had representative industry organizations with the charters to grow and support each segment. For EDA, it was the EDA Consortium (EDAC), a group formed by the leading EDA companies in the 1980s. Representing the manufacturing segment was SEMI, formerly known as Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International, founded in 1970 and going strong today with more than 2,000 member companies representing 1.3 million professionals worldwide. As its original name implied, SEMI focused its efforts on manufacturing, equipment and materials, and provided member companies with a host of programs, including conferences, standards efforts and research reports. EDAC and SEMI were not competing, nor were they collaborating. They were islands unto themselves.

In the last few years, both organizations individually started assessing the bigger picture. For EDAC, it was clear that its charter needed to expand beyond EDA to include intellectual property (IP), embedded software and design services, all becoming important parts of the design ecosystem. In 2017, EDAC was renamed the Electronic System Design (ESD) Alliance. While retaining its close affiliation to EDA, its expanded mission recognizes the broader scope of the design ecosystem that is rapidly becoming more “system-centric” as opposed to the past “chip-centric” view. The ESD Alliance continues to address technical, marketing, economic and legislative issues through its committees, hosting networking events and sponsorship of the Design Automation Conference (DAC) and DATE (Design Automation and Test Europe).

Simultaneously, SEMI’s executives determined it needed to expand its mission and charter to encompass the entire electronic product design and manufacturing chain because design –– and for that matter, semiconductor manufacturing –– can no longer be islands. Just as EDAC evolved to become the ESD Alliance, SEMI evolved from its original focus on semiconductor manufacturing equipment to include the entire chain from design through manufacturing.

Many of the previously disparate areas within the semiconductor industry now overlap and it’s obvious there’s a need to address the supply chain from manufacturing through design. Automotive electronics is one area where manufacturing cannot be an island. It needs to be closely bridged to the design island. Another is packaging. Because packaging is further down the supply chain, the design island wasn’t concerned with how a chip would fit on the package or the wiring of a printed circuit board. The advent of small, but powerful mobile devices changed that as packaging is critical to product success.

Building a bridge between the design island and the rest of the semiconductor supply chain will be done through the efforts of the two ecosystem resources, the ESD Alliance and SEMI. In April, the ESD Alliance and SEMI signed a memorandum of understanding whereby the ESD Alliance will become a SEMI Strategic Association Partner.

The ESD Alliance and SEMI hold a significant role in the larger context of worldwide electronic products. Consider the relative sizes of each segment in the “chain.” The design ecosystem is roughly $20 billion annually. Semiconductor equipment is currently pegged at about $60 billion per year. Sales of semiconductor devices surpassed $500 billion in 2017 and worldwide electronic product sales are measured in the trillions of dollars. It is interesting to note that the combination of the ESD Alliance and SEMI is driving a lever arm supporting trillions of dollars of end-product sales on a worldwide basis. After all, without design and without manufacturing equipment, there would be no new products and semiconductor processing would no longer advance.

The integration of the ESD Alliance into SEMI doesn’t mean that the ESD Alliance will fade away over time. Quite the contrary. In fact, it’s a favorable outcome for both. The ESD Alliance will retain its mission, name and programs for continuing to serve the design ecosystem. The SEMI umbrella brings design and manufacturing into one organization to further the ties between design and manufacturing that ultimately will allow the development of more advanced products.

Design is the foundation of semiconductor innovation and manufacturing, and enables smarter, faster, more powerful, and more affordable electronic products to more people every day. In geologic terms, a tectonic shift id taking place as the “islands” of design and manufacturing move closer to one another. As they begin to meld, a new continent will result.

Robert (Bob) Smith is Executive Director of the Electronic System Design Alliance (ESD Alliance). He is responsible for the management and operations of the ESD Alliance, an international association of companies providing goods and services throughout the semiconductor design ecosystem.


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