Richard Mount, Director of Sales at SWINDON Silicon examines how ASICs today contribute to the competitive advantage of so many products and applications
The ever increasing pace of technological change is matched only by the public hunger for the latest and best in applications and functionality. In industry there is no less demand but it is always held back by the ever present requirements of cost control and reliable long term performance. This desire for ever better functionality combined with lower costs and power usage has led to the new age of truly Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs).
The development of the semi-conductor from the transistor through to the integrated circuit and to the use of ‘standard’ solutions like programmable gate arrays led to an explosion in the everyday use of technology in computers, phones, appliances and other machines. Now ASICs are taking over. Each one is developed for a specific application in a specific product, to give a competitive advantage. Advances in low voltage, high speed processes and sub-micron lithography mean that today the mixed signal chip, combining analogue and digital functionality, can deliver performance beyond the pure digital processes, together with cost and size savings. These new ASICs enable development of so many devices that play a huge part in our lives from mobile phones to domestic appliances, hearing aids through to industrial test equipment and sensors. Nowhere is their use more important than in the vehicles we drive, for today every automobile uses many ASICs – for safety in tyre pressure measuring systems to airbag deployment and suspension control; for comfort in climate control and entertainment systems and for convenience in navigation systems.
The growth of mixed signal ASICs has led to the emergence of the fabless semiconductor company who are innovative and cost competitive. They offer experience and expertise in CMOS, BiCMOS and SiGe design and a full understanding of the advances in device packaging and production test. They are able to work with their customer to understand the product and application requirements in their given market application and with their supply chain of established foundries and materials suppliers to deliver the device on time and at an agreed price. It is inevitable that the more application specific the chip, then the closer the relationship between the customer and the designer needs to be. However it is the commercial aspects of design time and the time to market, as well as development funding and the ownership of Intellectual Property which are vital to a successful outcome for both parties. The combination of the latest techniques and design expertise combined with a solid commercial approach means that a number of new possibilities are now available. Let’s examine some of them…
Traditionally, standardised re-usable IP and gate arrays have been both cheaper and quicker to implement, but very often the advantages of using mixed signal cell libraries is outweighed by an ASIC, not only by the improved bespoke design but also possible silicon savings, with improved layout reducing costly wastage. The ever advancing “on chip” analogue capabilities mean that you should now consider a custom integrated ASIC solution for replacing many individual integrated circuits. Although this involves upfront design and tooling costs, the on-going savings in replacing many ICs means substantial savings with improved performance. Surprisingly, cost effective solutions, even for low volume projects, can be delivered if a company who can demonstrate experience and long established supplier relationships is used, as economies of scale can be utilised through supply chain initiatives.
If there is one single factor to show that a custom ASIC solution should be considered it is the technological advantage that it offers. If a product is based on the same set of widely available mixed signal libraries as its competitors then it will inevitably have exactly the same functions and performance. True innovation in a unique ASIC can lead to real market growth, and the resulting profitability. For example the increase in sensor technology has provided many instances where the custom mixed signal ASIC has been the final building block in being able to provide market leading solutions and hence the ASIC driven technology behind them has given a competitive head start.
Of course the application should always drive the technological solution and so many of the devices that enhance society today will continue to progress with the availability of more complex, faster and smaller ASIC devices. Analogue capability is at the heart of this progression and with so few genuine sources of advanced capability, from design through to production supply available, the selection of the right ASIC supplier is crucial.