As much as we'd like to think engineering is all about innovation, the essence of the profession often comes down to answering three questions: Who is the customer, what does it want, and how am I going to do it? As a result, interactions between designers and customers tend to define our goals and tasks.
OEMs, IDMs, And IDHs, Oh My!
Consumer products dominate today's analog/mixed-signal chip market, and most of the customers are Asian original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). What's hard to decipher is how that situation affects analog designers around the world.
Industry is evolving as Far East universities graduate more of their own engineers and experienced engineers return to their native countries to start design centers. Meanwhile, Western companies are acquiring overseas design centers while Asian OEMs change their product focus from cost-driven to branded models.
The simplistic view is that analog independent device manufacturers (IDMs) are making it easier for Asian OEMs to simply drop parts onto a board and have them work. Their "reference designs" are really complete application-specific subsystems that the IDM will even tweak if necessary to fit the OEMs' needs. In practice, however, it's more complicated.
For one thing, says Analog Devices' John Hussey, the IDM seldom deals directly with the OEM these days. In the middle, an independent design house (IDH) writes the specs for the IDM at the behest of the OEM and validates and verifies the IDM's product. And while there are many IDHs in China and a growing number in India, companies like S3 Silicon and Software Systems compete successfully from as far away as Dublin, Ireland.
National Semiconductor, Altera, and MoreThanIP, a German IDH, collaborated on a reference design for a media access controller for an IEEE 1588 industrial-control implementation. It incorporates National's physical-layer transceivers with MoreThanIP's 1588 MAC core implemented in an Altera FPGA.
Rick Zarr of National Semiconductor contrasts such reference designs with the old-fashioned way of producing a design within a company, investing one or two years in R&D, and then spinning modifications off that design for several years thereafter. "What we're doing," he says, "is taking that year or two of development, wrapping it up in a box, and handing it to them."
For the most part, Zarr says these reference designs aren't canned solutions. They're more like examples of how a design should be approached, or something that establishes a baseline performance with which the customer can compare its designs. Even when companies ship reference designs with Gerber tapes for the circuit boards, it's rare that the routing is copied exactly.
"We provide the Gerbers as an example of how to route critical sections and not do bad things like running the sense line under the inductor in a power supply," says Zarr. "As long as they take routing hints from the reference, odds are they'll be successful."