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If you need short-term gratification, don’t be a chip designer!

13/06/16 Jabe Bean Principal Consultant - Engineering

Microprocessors are everywhere, in TV’s, cars, Wi-Fi routers, refrigerators, mobile devices and increasingly in everything Internet-Of-Things (IOT).

The development of a microprocessor is one of the perilous, expensive and technically complex in the world of technology. D1D is Intel’s 17 million-cubic-foot microprocessor factory in Oregon where it manufactures semiconductors including the E5. The development of a new microprocessor can take up to 5 years, with the E5 alone costing at least $8.5 billion, not including the investment in initial research and development or layout. Even modest ’excursions’ – Intel’s euphemism for glitches - can add hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses to the entire microprocessor. According to research firm IDC, Intel is still the world’s largest chipmaker selling 99 percent of the microprocessors that go into computer servers.

In IT-parlance, a semiconductor or chip is the wafer thin slice of material which forms the base for an integrated circuit. Producing it is a highly complex task that can broadly be divided into three phases: Design, IC fabrication and Assembly.

There are very few careers similar to a Semiconductor Designer or an IC Designer and this career option is a job that can really be at the heart of almost every device that surrounds us today and in the future. The ultimate gratification from being an IC/ASIC Designer comes from watching the world around you use your product to make it work.

Mooly Eden, a retired Intel engineer describes semiconductor chip design as “like designing a city.” However, the ‘urban-planning’ analogy may undersell the difficulty. She explains that “an IC designer must somehow fit the equivalent of the world’s population into a 1 inch square and arrange everything in such a way that the computer has access to each individual transistor 3 billion times per a second.” Even before this process, it takes Intel’s architects , the most senior IC designers who work closely with customers and researchers, to produce a specification which is a several thousand page document that explains the IC/ASIC’s functions in extreme detail. However, Intel are not the only key players to pursue a semiconductor career.

Currently, the key players in the semiconductor IC design industry can be separated into:

Fabless firms: Only involved with IC design work of chips and do not undertake the actual manufacture of the semiconductors.
Design Service firms: Those who execute specific contracts for big firms in IC design
Silicon Intellectual Property firms: These create IP, such as ARM and then sell it to other firms to integrate into the semiconductors designed by the likes of Intel
EDA (Electronic Design Automation) tool vendors: Those who evaluate and simulate IC designs for manufacturing readiness e.g. Cadence and Mentor Graphics.

The basic requisites to enter this field of work is a BSc in subjects such as Microelectronics, Electronics, Electronic & Electrical where recruiters tend to look for a good sense of engineering with a sound grounding in mathematics, physics and electronics. There are numerous courses associated with semiconductor design which teach the varying design methodologies and EDA toolflow:

High-level synthesis (or behavioural synthesis, algorithmic synthesis) - High-level design description (e.g. in C/C++) is converted into RTL.
Logic synthesis - Translation of RTL design description (e.g. written in Verilog or VHDL) into a discrete netlist of logic gates
Schematic Capture - For standard cell digital, analog, RF-like Capture CIS in OrCAD by CADENCE and ISIS in Proteus.
IC Layout - Usually schematic-driven layout, like Layout in OrCAD by Cadence, ARES in Proteus.

Constant improvement of skills and knowledge is a must, as the design tools and processes continue to evolve in the innovative technology sphere. There are a range of related paths to pursue in IC design. Careers and Jobs in IC Design can lead to the following paths:

SOC integration engineer
IP developer: analogue or digital
DST design engineer: focusing on testing
Verification engineer: verify design in simulations

What are the prospects in semiconductor IC Design?

In comparison to other engineering fields, for example the mechanical industry, the semiconductor or chip industry is more cyclical in nature. Career decisions within the semiconductor industry should not be based on the current outlook of the industry as the industry tends to fluctuate and bounce back from recessionary periods with renewed avenues for growth.

Jabe Bean, Redline Group’s Specialist Technical & Engineering Senior Consultant comments: “Overall there is great potential for semiconductor IC design and fabrication/manufacturing. There is a growing demand for semiconductors in every sector, be it automotive, consumer electronics, mobile communications, health or high-end IT servers. There is a constant need for more ASICs (application specific integrated circuits) and the shortage of IC design and semiconductor process roles continues to be one the hardest jobs to fill. Skills within the semiconductor sector continues to be in demand in the Engineering and Technology industry.

For more information on Electronics jobs and Technical & Engineering jobs, please contact Jabe Bean.