With every electronic product getting smaller and smarter, developing a true differentiator may seem out of reach for manufacturers. However, using an ASIC can make innovative product development possible.
An application-specific integrated circuit, or ASIC, is a custom integrated circuit (IC) that is designed specifically for the customer’s requirements. Functionality, size, power, cost and environmental conditions all form part of an ASIC specification. They are all vital factors an ASIC developer needs to know in order to deliver a successful end result.
However, not every customer will know the exact details of their ASIC specification when they first decide to explore the technology. So, how should they work with an ASIC partner to ensure a successful conclusion?
The ASIC checklist
A customer doesn’t need to know exactly what they want from the design and performance of their ASIC from day one. Instead, a good ASIC developer will be able to guide the customer through the process, taking what it learns about their individual and unique needs and translating them into technical recommendations. However, there are a few early considerations that will aid this process.
Ultimately, the customer should understand what they are trying to achieve by using an ASIC. Custom ICs offer a host of important benefits to the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) such as higher performance, lower power, smaller footprint, a reduced bill of materials and higher reliability. ASICs also offer higher intellectual property (IP) security due to the circuits being much harder to reverse-engineer, so companies driven by the need to comply with standards for cybersecurity or functional safety will see the benefits a custom IC solution delivers.
Knowing the main drivers behind the customer’s ASIC design choices will help the ASIC partner understand these goals, without requiring too much technical detail from the offset. In addition to understanding these goals, a company looking to invest in an ASIC will always want to establish the business case for the investment.
When building a business case, budget will ultimately come into play, of course; but the organisation should also understand its primary aim. It is likely that the ASIC will be built into a specific or family of products, therefore, what is the lifespan and expected volume profile of these products? This vision for the investment payback from the outset is crucial so that a robust business plan can be realised by both parties.
The initial planning phase of a custom IC is vital to ensuring success. This time should be spent working with an ASIC partner locking-down the requirements for the blocks and circuits, to eventually translate these requirements into a requirement specification and ultimately an ASIC specification.
Specification or feature ‘creep’ in ASIC developments, when changes or additions are made over time, can and are often accommodated, however they may increase cost, both in time and resources, especially if late on in the development. Therefore, no matter how much detail a customer first brings to the table, a valued ASIC partner will help to refine the requirements in the discovery process and provide the optimum design architecture.
Designing for the future
So what do you need to consider when choosing an ASIC partner? First and foremost, a potential partner should possess the credentials to instil confidence that they can deliver a successful IC into production, in your particular market and application, and for the product’s forecasted lifetime.
As previously mentioned, IP protection is a key ASIC strength, and Swindon Silicon Systems provides its customers with full ownership of the completed system design, to ensure the system IP remains firmly in the customer’s possession. Choosing an ASIC partner that does not sell standard parts may also alleviate the risk of IP potentially being used at a future date in an in-house product.
Obsolescence is another common concern with both design and purchasing departments. Companies often choose the ASIC route to maximise component supply availability for the lifetime of their product, with no gaps in availability or stock shared with competitors. This sharply contrasts solutions built from standard components, where manufacturers readily consign components to the ‘obsolescence bin’ when the part no longer makes financial sense to the supplier.
Obsolescence is the bane of any purchasing department, but it can be proactively managed with the right support. Swindon, for example, works with its customers to develop an obsolescence management plan, which results in the chip being available for as long as the customer requires it. Several methods are used to provide non-obsolescence, such as storing wafers in dry nitrogen storage for up to 25 years or porting the chip design onto a modernised process.
A recipe for success
Finally, an organisation should choose an ASIC partner with quality markers to solidify its own credibility. Does the partner have ISO 9001, the quality management system, accreditation to ensure the customer gets consistent results? For those exploring ASICs for automotive applications, TS 16949 is another important quality marker. This accreditation is a technical specification aimed at the development of a quality management system which provides for continual improvement, emphasizing defect prevention and the reduction of variation and waste in the automotive industry supply chain and assembly process.
While TS16949 is not required for fabless ASIC companies, fabless suppliers should adhere to the standards and processes required by the automotive industry and their customers.
Start the process
For companies looking to engage in ASICs, it's never too soon to explore how the technology can give your product an edge, both technically and commercially, versus your competition. However, it is wise for a business to make some careful considerations before committing to a custom IC solutions partner.
Choosing a trustworthy, qualified ASIC partner will be the key to success — the key is to look for one that can deliver both the design and production test of the ASIC, using only in-house capabilities, is a prudent first step. Whether a business already has its ASIC wish list, or just a few ideas and requirements, it is never too early to engage with an established and trusted ASIC partner.
Author details: Richard Mount is Director of Sales at Swindon Silicon Systems