Getting ready for the first-quarter rush

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David SrodzinskiDavid Srodzinski, CEO and founder of Scottish fabless semiconductor house Elonics, is preparing for a busy first quarter. Not because, after a devastating slump, the recovery in the chip business got underway halfway through 2009 but because Q1 is the coming-out season for new silicon. If you are not ready to get chips in front of potential buyers by the end of March, you can pretty much kiss goodbye to business in the second half of the year.

It’s a testament to the rise of consumer electronics as a proportion of the overall semiconductor business that the market is now so seasonal. “Q1 is the decision time for companies developing new products,” Srodzinski explained. “That is when they are going to be looking at new components.”

Making the selection in Q1 gives the companies approximately six months to get a new system into the market – in time for Christmas and the Chinese New Year in the following Q1. “Christmas drives the cyclical nature of the industry,” he said. “Miss the Q1 slot and you miss the market for that product completely. After that, they will be concentrating on the actual design. You are in with a small chance during Q2 but you won’t get into production with anyone in Q3.”

“We are focused on RF semiconductors, initially on the broadcast TV and radio space. We are concentrating very much on high-end RF,” said Srodzinski.

Formed in 2003, the company is aiming for the time when radios go soft: using signal processing to let the same receiver module deal with practically any frequency, possibly as far as 10GHz. “We believe that every radio will be made configurable. And we believe that the receiver can be pushed all the way up there,” he added. “But that’s a big challenge for a start-up to take on. We needed to focus the company as we go to a higher revenue stage. So, we are initially focused on the TV tuner market.”

The TV market happens to be a good target as brown-goods makers want to be able to ship the same product anywhere in the world. Right now, they have to use different tuners even for individual countries within the EU because all the TV systems use different parts of the spectrum – to avoid the national networks from interfering with each other across borders.

“The market is interesting for us because it is undergoing a transition. If you open up a TV, there is always a tuner pack.” Srodzinski used his slightly battered aluminium business-card holder to demonstrate the difference Elonics claims to make. “This is about the same size as a tuner module.”

“It takes up a lot of space, consumes a lot of power and the performance is variable,” said Srodzinski. “It consumes something like 3 to 5W and is relatively inflexible. One for the UK is different to a German or a French one. And that is just in Europe.”

Size is not the only issue for designers who want to put TV receivers into mobile products. They consume a fairly high proportion of the TV’s overall power budget. “When I started as an engineer, I worked for Sony and their TVs were 400W units. Today, TVs can go down to 80W. A lot of that is the flat-panel display but each canned tuner takes up around 5W. And, in a modern TV, there are as many as three: one for when you watching, one for recording and one for picture-in-picture.

“Today, TV is going into applications such as laptop PCs, cellphones and PDAs. You can’t design products with this size of canned tuner within. And the power consumption is prohibitive,” said Srodzinski.

In January, in time for 2009’s Q1 season, Elonics launched a tuner for DVB-T and DVB-H receivers that the company claims consumes around 120mW and fits into a 5x5mm package. “And we have taken the price down from around $5 for a pack to around $1 for a silicon chip.”

Srodzinski said some 20 customers have designed-in the product, primarily into laptops being made in Taiwan. Although the market for TV-ready laptops is small right now, he said he expects this to grow into “the tens of percentage points”. As well as being smaller, because the part can be programmed after assembly for a particular region, the ODM or PC maker only has to assemble one design of system, cutting down on their inventory. “It’s a very competitive market but we think we have a very competitive product. Also, the market is changing: the customer base is different, with a growing market for digital TV and purely digital devices. That puts new requirements on what you need from a tuner device.”

To get the size down further, he claimed it should be possible “to squeeze three channels into a single chip”.

Srodzinski said he sees a limited benefit to integration with the back-end components, such as the demodulator. These more digitally oriented devices tend sit better with the applications processor, which will typically be made on the most advanced processes available. NXP Semiconductor has launched a 45nm TV processor and STMicroelectronics has had 65nm-based products on the market for a couple of years. But Elonics favours the RF version of the 130nm CMOS process from IBM Microelectronics – a higher density process would not allow the architecture to scale much and it is a stable process with accurate models and decent on-chip inductors.

“At 45nm, our chip would get more expensive. The wafer cost is three to four or five times higher cost,” said Srodzinski, but the RF section would not scale, so the company would not reap the benefit of a smaller die.

The fab choice itself was influenced heavily by design.

“Many of the process design kits are optimised for technologies such as WiFi. Our tuning range is from 50MHz to 1.7GHz. So, we needed a toolset and device models that work across that entire RF range: We don’t have in our company a process-modelling capability,” said Srodzinski. “We had to rely on providers for that, and so that was the reason for choosing the design flow.

“The fab comes first. You need to ensure that the fab characterises things the way you need them to be characterised.”

Having opted for the IBM process, the company decided to base its flow on the Virtuoso layout editor and Specctra simulator from Cadence Design Systems, with Matlab used for high-level modelling and some other tools for design-rule checks and mask making, which is where Mentor Graphics’ Calibre normally slots in.

To check the early stages of the design, Elonics ran a couple of masks on multiproject wafers through IBM: one in 2006 and another in 2007, with the production mask delivered in 2008.

Although a system-on-chip (SoC) design for TV is unlikely, Srodzinski said some customers have wanted to do system-in-package projects to get the overall board space down. “We have a number of programmes on the go. Generally, you can do it if there is a real push on modules, although you have a more expensive package and heat dissipation is very important. So you need to choose whether to go with stacked or side-by-side die. It’s an interesting market but one we are pursuing.”