Analog expertise dwindling in Europe, panel says

TechOnline India - June 02, 2009

Analog chip design and manufacturing expertise is critical for the European semiconductor industry — but there are less and less experts to maintain this know how. Panelists at the GSA & IET Semiconductor forum called for action.

MUNICH, Germany — Analog chip design and manufacturing expertise is critical for the European semiconductor industry — but there are less and less experts to maintain this know how. Panelists at the GSA & IET Semiconductor forum called for action.

The four panelists — Andreas Bertl from Infineon, Pierre Bricaud from Synopsys, Mark Redford from CSR Plc. and Wesley Ryder from Mentor Graphics — agreed widely in the assessment of the situation. Less and less engineers in Europe specialize on the difficult and abstract topic of designing analog and mixed-signal chips. For instance, at the Institute for System Level Integration (ILSI) in Scotland, 36 out of 40 participants of a recent analog/mixed signal master program came from India and only four from Europe, reported Wesley Ryder, who as Worldwide Technical Director for EDA software vendor Mentor Graphics accompanies many promotional programs.

This proportion says a lot about the situation of a technology segment where Europe still excels and which is of vital interest for many industries in Europe such as automotive and medical electronics. Nevertheless, when panel moderator Maria Marced, President of TSMC Europe, asked the illustrious round what to do, the proposals from the respondents were different and rather vague. "We need to do an awful lot more to encourage students to come into this area", said Ryder, who earlier in the discussion had called analog design a "black art" in order to illustrate its multi-dimensional complexity.

Concrete ideas however were in short supply; the panelists only had relatively general suggestions to offer. Better access to analog technologies for start-up companies, for instance was one of them, or sponsoring students being another one. "This is not the time to ask what we could do," said Mark Redford who oversees advanced process technology development for Bluetooth chip maker CSR Inc. "It is the time to ask what we must do."

This illustrates the urgency of the problem and at the same time the absence of a concrete solution approach.

The lack of new blood — or, to be more exact, European domestic new blood — however was neither the single nor the main topic for the panel. Other questions discussed were design quality, IP reuse and exchangeability, and the competition from Far East. With respect to the latter, Infineon's Andreas Bertl explained that quality is key in the competition. "We have high prices in Europe, that's true", Bertl said. "But as long as we keep our quality level we have a good chance to survive."

It also became clear that analog / mixed signal are not technologies one simply can learn in a theoretical course and then apply his/her knowledge in production. At the physical level, much experience and individual process "tweaking" is necessary to get the desired results. For instance, there is a trade-off between IP exchangeability and performance — each fab and foundry has its own secret recipes how to achieve maximum performance for a given design. Which, of course, has a side effect: Users cannot change their foundry as simply as they can do that with purely digital designs.

And perhaps also someone is to blame for the difficult situation that has not much to do with analog and mixed signal technology in the first place: The venture capital camp which apparently does not feel overly attracted by the "black art". "There is not a lot of venture capital out there," Ryder said. "But this is a difficult topic altogether."

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