Electronic Design

Apps Drive Innovation, But The Design Environment Is Changing

Each December, I ask analog/mixed-signal companies about their expectations for the coming year, eliciting mostly predictable responses. Trends always point to the “big-three” improvements: lower power, smaller voltage swings, and shrinking semiconductor packages. Yet the process for making those improvements isn’t quite what it used to be.

Today's Power Demands
Consumers want more from their cell phones, portable games, and other handheld devices. Original device manufacturers (ODMs) are responding by cramming even more features into their products. But those consumers still expect the same or even better battery life compared to previous generations of those gadgets. This demand affects a myriad of product types.

The growth in specialization also is driving the need for lower power consumption. For example, medical imaging products require more channels, from full-body magnetic-resonance imagers (MRIs) to ultrasound. They also need to be cheaper and more portable. And, there’s a push to create affordable yet accurate instruments for at-home patient monitoring of vital signs like glucose levels and blood pressure.

In some ways, we’re a long way from Star Trek’s handheld medical tricorders, being forced to rely on enormous and expensive magnets for MRI. But progress is under way in shrinking ultrasound medical products, both for obstetrics and for measuring blood flow. Some compact products, like the Honda Electronics HS- 4000plus, incorporate both functions (see the figure). (Honda Electronics is not part of the car company. Rather, it was founded by a different gentleman of the same name.)

Meanwhile, all analog chipmakers agree that they need to deal with the smaller voltage swings dictated by ever-shrinking transistors. These improvements manifest themselves in rail-to-rail input and output swings as well as in lower noise and distortion specs.

The rail-to-rail (sometimes even a little more on the input side) swings are achieved with on-chip charge pumps. Better total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD+N) comes from better chip design and process technology control. In most cases, those factors are also leading to amplifiers that are more tolerant of less than ideal loads.

Finally, everyone agrees that semiconductor packages will continue to shrink, driven again by those handheld-product ODMs’ need to cram even more features into their phones and games every 18 months.

The World Really is Flat
As much as chips continue to evolve, the ways that circuit designers interact with each other are evolving rapidly as well. Along with project management, the sources for chip specifications are changing too. That is, most designers are now most likely to be designing products that will primarily be manufactured and consumed in Asia.

Moreover, Asian end-users with rising purchasing power now dictate product features, look and feel, and price points. Yet the Asian market is by no means monolithic, leading to new and evolving demographics and new opportunities to get things right or wrong.

And no matter where design engineers live, they are most likely to interact often with colleagues located across Europe, from the Atlantic to the Steppes, and in India, the People’s Republic, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. How they deal with each other and how they deliver any kind of a product on schedule and within budget (okay, within a few percent) is very different from the days when a company’s engineers all worked in the same building, ate in the same cafeteria, drank at the same watering holes, and frequently traded companies as their careers unfolded.

Nor are analog product designers as strongly tied to a few big chip companies as they were in the past. There are large and small analog design houses, dedicated analog foundries, and plenty of good analog intellectual property in the libraries of the big pure-play digital foundries.

Illustrating the shift, last month, the Fabless Semiconductor Association even changed its name to the Global Semiconductor Association, shedding the last of the “real men have foundries” bluster of the last century and emphasizing the connection between them and suppliers ranging from TSMC to X-Fab to Jazz.

All that makes a difference in how products get designed. As much as the chips themselves are evolving, so are the ways we interact with each other to create those chips.

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