It has been half a century since the invention of the IC and subsequent mass production by pioneering integrated device manufacturers (IDMs). Many semiconductor companies rose to dominance in the next three decades without challenge until the foundry model emerged in the mid-1980s and our world was never the same.
Established by TSMC’s Dr. Morris Chang, the foundry and subsequent fabless industries were born over 25 years ago. It is indisputable as we look at the world’s leading IC companies now and see how many are pure fabless enterprises, that they have succeeded based solely on the merits of their designs, and not their manufacturing prowess. This has given them the freedom to innovate widely and creatively on solutions for the electronics system manufacturers that supply the constantly expanding universe of products consumers rely upon today.
You only need to go back a few short years for an example of how this new semiconductor design and manufacturing model made all the difference when the chip industry was on the down cycle, along with the “great recession,” and success was definitely not a sure thing.
Smartphones emerged as a legitimate contender for the world’s most popular computing platform around 2008. What happened next was a surprise for everyone: unprecedented demand for smartphones rocketed them past PCs in 2010 and keeping up with requirements for high-performance, low-power application processors became increasingly difficult.
TSMC, along with its “Grand Alliance” of equipment and material suppliers, IP and design tool partners, rallied and met this demand with 28nm production capacity that rose 30X from 2011 to 2012, and then tripled in 2013. This type of response could only happen in an open innovation environment that has come to maturity during the rise of fabless companies and their supporting ecosystems.
Due in large part to the ascent of a powerful design ecosystem complementing the fabless industry, the “not-invented-here” mindset of early IDMs was overturned. The ecosystem works in unison with designers and foundries to ensure that the IP, design tools and services needed to get next-generation designs taped-out and in production are proven and ready to help IC designers meet their time-to-market goals.
It is in this perfect environment that IC magic is born. Foundries optimize their process recipe, IC designers add their innovative ingredients (their secret sauce) and – voila! – dinner is served.
Foundries are always pushing the technology recipe envelope to better serve their customers. The high-performance, low-power 28nm node dramatically and permanently changed the mobile computing landscape. With 20nm and FinFET technologies entering production there will be more exciting and dynamic products hitting the market. However, advanced technology IC design mandates different skillsets and ways of doing business. Today a team-oriented approach is essential, requiring long-term collaboration and synchronization among several partners to achieve success.
Everyone must work closely at an early stage. In this new paradigm, closer and earlier collaboration between design and technology is imperative for advanced technology development.
Designers must bring their innovations to market through a comprehensive ecosystem that comprises both design enablement and design productization. Design enablement takes products from roadmap to tape-out, and design productization takes them the rest of the way, from GDS to product launch. Key steps in the design enablement phase are process definition, EDA and IP enablement, and test chip validation. Key steps in the design productization phase are design service, mask making/OPC, wafer fabrication and backend service. For an ecosystem to truly thrive and innovate, it needs to demonstrate the traits that benefit all of its members.
- Offers best ROI for all parties
- Early availability, enables best time-to-market
- Complete solution, no missing pieces
- Cost effective for everyone to join ecosystem
- High quality standards
- Overcomes barriers of process, design and manufacturing so industry benefits from full technology advancement
A successful ecosystem ranges widely, bringing together IC designers, the foundry, the EDA industry and IP services, along with test, assembly and packaging firms to enable close, early collaboration among all parties. Its sole focus is to speed innovation, improve design productivity and reduce waste.
An IP portfolio qualified for each process technology will include thousands of IP macros/libraries from dozens of third-party IP suppliers, as well as state-of-the-art standard cells and memory macros for process-optimized library portfolios, all rated according to the foundry’s own stringent quality standards.
Due to the complexity of IP/SoC design and challenges at advanced technology nodes, leveraging third-party IP is an intelligent way for SoC designers to expedite product development. Consequently, it is imperative that the quality of third-party IP is continuously elevated to reach high confidence. An IP quality management program consists of a set of minimum quality requirements for libraries and IP designed for specific process technologies. Third-party providers submit required data and silicon assessment reports that can be posted online after review. Designers can compare results and scores to understand the IP confidence level and/or risk level of using the IP. Having easy access to this information online can significantly shorten the SoC design cycle.
Preparing the ecosystem for a new process occurs in two steps. First is the definition phase, followed by development phase.
- Foundry engages with design partners on design rule optimization, device definition, optimization of power, performance and area (PPA) and the creation of a test vehicle plan
- With IP partners it sets PPA targets, roadmaps and silicon validation plans are aligned
- Collaborating with EDA partners, the foundry defines tool solutions, identifies feature enhancements and establishes accuracy metrics
These activities optimize technology and design, in that technology is tuned for design needs, and design is modified to take full advantage of the technology.
- The ecosystem development phase orchestrates enablement activities so technology and design are ready at the same time
- Design kits, reference foundation IP and design guidelines are provided to design partners
- EDA and IP partners receive enablement kits tailored to their needs, which include pre-silicon certification and silicon validation for IP partners and tool feature development and certification for EDA partners
- Process design kits (PDKs) are also made available for custom digital, analog and mixed-signal/radio frequency (RF) design
- Reference flows help designers quickly ramp up new technology offerings; based on industry standards, the flows are open, provide connected platforms, and are scalable to the size and complexity of multicore systems-on-chip (SOCs)
The mutually beneficial relationships created by successful design ecosystems create tight and lasting bonds between foundry and design partners. This close working relationship provides designers with many benefits. Compared with the vertically integrated model, the modern design ecosystem lets its constituents play to their strengths, help business grow, reduce design infrastructure cost, and provide ample innovation opportunities.
This powerful collaborative engine needs to constantly evaluate itself and look for ways to improve. Some ideas to make these relationships work even better and faster include:
- The ecosystem needs a driver to make sure it is consistently providing the most vital products, services and technology. With its resources and focus, the foundry is ideally suited to play that role
- All ecosystem members must create differentiation and value through innovation. At the same time, it’s essential to avoid redundancies and reduce waste, which means the members need to work collaboratively and synergistically
- It’s absolutely key that the foundry never competes with its customers. This is the only way that the ecosystem can continue to enable and optimize innovative new technologies that drive implementation of new process nodes
Life and business is full of unintended consequences. It would have been hard to imagine in 1987 just how far and fast the fabless/foundry business model would travel in such a short amount of time. Once the IDM model was overturned as the only way to design and manufacture ICs, it unleashed a flood of innovations from designers, tool makers and IP vendors – something that few could have predicted.
Even more amazing, participants in the fabless/foundry design ecosystem pull their resources and collaborate with each other to achieve the best results for designers. It is truly a case of acknowledging that growing the WHOLE PIE is the best way for all involved to succeed and prosper together.