Chris Edwards: December 2009 Archives

Quality street

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About ten years ago, the semiconductor intellectual property (IP) was just getting underway. Although ARM and MIPS had carved out decent businesses for themselves selling processor cores by that time - ARM floated in April 1998 and was riding high courtesy of the Internet stock boom - there were still serious doubts over the viability of the IP business model. Ten years on, there still are.

At the recent IP-ESC conference in Grenoble, some old favourites from the early days came back with a vengeance, such as the perennial favourite, IP quality. The system-on-chip (SoC) industry has, on the one hand, dealt reasonably well with the quality issue. And IP is now a core part of SoC design. It's hard to think of any SoC on the market that does not incorporate a hardware block bought from somewhere else.

STMicrolectronics has even formed its own internal IP suppliers. "We separated the SoC team from the IP team," said Francois Remond of ST, primarily to make the IP more robust. A danger with reusing blocks that were never designed for the purpose is that shortcuts taken on the original project don't show until too late on subsequent designs.

"We had recently the experience of transforming an adult RTL block [developed internally] into IP. It has a high cost," said Remond. "It is better to start with reuse in mind."

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.”

Plastic dreams

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Hermann HauserIf there was a time for the UK government to launch a strategy to back plastic electronic, three years ago was the time to do it. It seemed a riskier proposition then but it was also the time when Plastic Logic was nearing the end of its search for a location for its first flexible-display fab. Shortly before the company alighted on Dresden in early January, courtesy of a bunch of sweeteners from Silicon Saxony, plastic electronics fan and investor Hermann Hauser (pictured left) delivered to an audience of technology businesspeople in Cambridge his less than stellar opinion of UK regional development authorities (RDAs).

Wales had been a serious contender as a home for the fab, making it the final five among locations in Europe and Asia, but Hauser declared the UK RDAs as being "less than responsive". It was not just about subsidies but the burden of obtaining planning permission. "We are just not thinking strategically," said Hauser at the High Value Manufacturing conference in late 2006.

But at least part of the message sank in. "I feel that the government needs to have a lot more courage to support sectors," Hauser added later in a panel session.