ASIC success factors based on customer – vendor relationships

ASIC success is something that all customers and ASIC vendors pray for. For the customer the issue is one of his/her credibility and recognition within his/her own organization and potential gain/loss of funding. The issue for ASIC vendor is his/her reputation, revenue and long term prosperity. Whichever side one is on, any information on succeeding with an ASIC product can only come in handy.

Over the past 35 years, my involvement with ASICs, first as an employee of large systems companies and then latterly ( 21 years) in a smaller “ASIC – centric” company I have learnt some lessons which I thought might be useful for others. Therefore this post.

The following success factors are in no particular order. Yet all are equally important. If the interested person makes use of these ideas then his/her success with ASICs will be greatly enhanced. That is my earnest hope.

1.0 Underestimation of time and money: The success or failure of an ASIC actually starts right at the beginning, when the vendor is asked for a quotation. Many times the vendor thinks that by underbidding the project he may improve his chances of getting the business. As a matter of fact, this is true in many cases. A low bidder wins. However, the customer may not realize that two things are about to happen:

(A). The vendor cannot possibly complete the project in the time and money originally quoted so he asks for more time or money or both, in many ingenious ways.
(B) The vendor fails to do a complete job on the ASIC and releases the ASIC to fabrication anyway. Of course the probability of failure is very high, since due diligence may not have been done.

Both of these options lead to negative consequences. One of the most serious being loss of trust by the customer, and the death of a close friendly relationship between the two. It is very hard to salvage the project after this has happened.

Therefore for ASIC success, an accurate estimation of time and money is critical. If the vendor estimates a higher amount, he still has to live by it and quote it. In spite of this the wise customer will add at least 20% 0r more to both these quantities as contingency planning.

2.0 Schedule: This is a corollary to the first factor. Establishment of a reasonable workable schedule is one of the most important success factors for ASICs. Similar comments hold as above. When schedules become too tight or unworkable the project can continue for a while in cloud cuckoo land but the cuckoos will ultimately come home to roost as the time runs out. The result may be (i) ASIC not complete (ii) ASIC done badly to satisfy customer push to meet an unworkable schedule leading to failure of the ASIC at probe or bench test. After this it is very difficult to continue with the project because it may take a very long time to debug and fix the ASIC. Again a contingency plan should add more time to take into account any unknown factors from completely wrecking the schedule and hence the ASIC.

3.0 ASIC development agreements: A carefully thought out and written ASIC development and supply agreement is an absolute must for success. Agreements should contain, at a minimum, a clear and detailed SOW for each phase of the project, review process, Engineering Change Order( ECO) procedures, a program plan as accurate as can be at this initial stage, payment schedule and terms, communication procedures between the vendor and customer and any other legalities ( boiler plate). Functional and test specifications may or may not be included. If a separate conceptual/feasibility study was done before the actual ASIC project was started ( highly recommended) then both specifications should be part of the agreement.

4.0 Customer expectations: Customer expectations are a very important success factor for an ASIC project. Customer expectations are really set by his/her view of the vendor and the information that vendor supplies. It is imperative that a set of realistic ( or slightly pessimistic, [I daresay], expectations) be the rule. I know that if the expectations are very pessimistic then the customer will decide not to do the project. Conversely, if the customer expectations are too high then when reality sets in, the negative feelings may cause untold misery to both parties. I believe that one of the critical jobs that a vendor must do is to manage customer expectations in an effective and positive manner.

5.0 Design tools: Lets make sure that the appropriate design tools are available both to the vendor and customer. At a minimum, a reasonable system simulator, a circuit simulator, a layout tool, a debug tool and a documentaion tool is essential. Today this is not a problem, since CAD tools are freely available under a variety of license options. A corollary to this, is that the vendor must know how to make effective use of the tool. Currently CAD tools have become so complicated and massive that sometimes this very fact causes problems. I think that the rule should be, to use the simplest and most user friendly tool appropriate to the job. The customer needs to have some way to review the work being done and to help if any issues arise. Therefore the customer should also have access to some tools which allow him/her to do his bit.

6.0 Fabrication models and design rules: This is very important and has major ramifications. As shown in an earlier post, one of the ways to realise a successful ASIC to through extensive simulation, clean layout and verification of the layout before submission to a fabrication facility. Accurate device models and design rules must be supplied by the fabricator and packaging houses. Any inaccuracies in this data will cause untold problems, during and after the fabrication of the ASIC and may render a ASIC completely useless. So lets make sure we pick a good fabricator and packaging house who can supply accurate models.

7.0 Design expertise: The vendor should make sure that the design expertise exists in the company for a particular type of ASIC. Competence is what is required. The augmentation of expertise with CAD tools is great and perhaps competence with the CAD tools is part of the expected competence. If the appropriate design expertise for a certain part of the ASIC does not exist within the company, then ask for help within the larger ASIC vendor or consultant community to fill the gap.

8.0 Full disclosure to the customer: It is essential that the vendor and customer disclose any issues that may be troubling or which may impact the success of the ASIC. Colloquialy, “lets be up front” with each other to get the maximum benefit from each others expertise. Anything that is hidden will eventually be found out and usually at the worst possible time.

9.0 Customer – vendor relationship: This is one of the most important success factors for ASIC success. A close, cordial, mutually respectful and friendly relationship between the customer and vendor, in my opinion, is a very important success factor. Even in times of stress ( for whatever reason) a close relationship will help to get over any issues being generated by the project. A close friendly relationship is so important that I rate it as the number one success factor for ASIC success.

10.0 Communications between the customer and the vendor: Another important success factor is the level of communications between the customer and vendor. Regular reviews, informal or formal conversations between the appropriate members of the customer/vendor team make all the difference in the world. Specially to catch any problems in their infancy, before they become big problems. E-mail, video teleconferencing, telephone, etc. whatever means are most effective should be used often and regularly to achieve a close communication link.

11.0 Use of ECOs ( Engineering change orders): In some cases, even though due diligence was done, a change may be required by the customer after the project starts. I strongly recommend the use of ECOs to prevent problems due to “MISSION CREEP”, the biggest problem in some major projects. Obviously it is not easy to eliminate this, but the ECO allows both parties to do the needful in a friendly and professional manner. The change to be done is discussed, a new quote for time and money is generated and the program plan is amended in such a manner that both customer and vendor are satisfied.

12.0 Multiple iterations for large ASICs: The rate at which there are first pass successes for ASICs has risen steadily. However, when the ASIC is complex for any reason ( Large analog and digital content, different types of simulation conditions, unknown design parameters etc), multiple iterations should be factored in right at the beginning and customer and vendor should clearly understand that this is the case. The number of iterations required varies from project to project. Sometimes the vendor may fail to inform the customer of this fact and thereby fail to manage customer expectations as mentioned above leading to a failure of the project.

13.0 Post fabrication analysis tools: If the ASIC is small and uncomplicated, then the probability is, that it will be a first pass success and no other work will be needed post fabrication. However, when the ASIC is complex ( as described above), it is very probable that multiple iterations will be required to get it to production status. In order to effectively analyze performance problems or debug the ASIC some analysis tools and equipment is neccessary.
An analytical prober with a low capacitance, high impedance probe capable of probing down to
1 micron is neccessary. Access to a Focused Ion Beam ( FIB) resource is becoming more and more popular. Appropriate laboratory test equipment is neccessary. A PCB design, layout and fabrication resource is required. This is of course not a comprehensive list. Some of this equipment and tools may be acquired internally. However some expensive items like the FIB tool may be rented as needed.

14.0 Conclusions: The above musings are a result of my experience. The success factors listed above are by no means exhaustive. I would welcome comments from peers on their experiences and permission to add their recommendations to this list. Finally I sincerely hope that this post is useful and leads to better ASICs and great ROI for our customers.

LNA

SPG designs, develops and delivers custom analog and RF/wireless asics and modules.

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A wideand RF detector ( 40 Mhz to 3 Ghz) -75 dBm to 5 dBm input

A wideband RF detector

A wideband RF detector

Linear detector performance

Linear detector performance curves

A wideband linear RF detector

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Wideband RF detector perforamce , more details

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Full range frequency response

2 stage amplifier deta

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A high frequency divider from 500 Mhz to % Ghz+

The input interface.
The frequency divider has a differential analog interface. The following parameters apply:
The minimum frequency that can be input is 500 Mhz and the maximum frequency is 6.0 Ghz.
The RF input level is 5 dBm to – 5 dBm. For lower frequencies make sure that the slew rate is
greater than 560 V/us. The input is biased by two 500 Ohm resistors connected to a 1.6V DC bias.
Therefore AC coupling is used at the input. These are two 100pF capacitors.
The output interface.
The output is single ended. The output driver is capable of sourcing and sinking 24 mA. The
equivalent output impedance is 50 Ohm. To avoid reflections it is recommended that the divider
work into a 50 Ohm load.
General operation.
The inputs are applied to the input SMA I/O. The product will work with both a differential input as
well as a single ended input. However, a differential input works best. The division ratio is applied
to the N1 and N2 control inputs as follows:
N2 N1 Division ratio
0 0 8
0 1 16
1 0 32
1 1 64
The logic levels are:
Logic level Voltage
1 1.4V minimum
0 0.6V maximum
The supply voltage interface.
The operating supply voltage is 3.3V typical. The quiescent (DC) operating supply current is 2 mA.

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SPDT DC to 3 Ghz RF switch

DC to 3 Ghz RF SPDT switch

RF Switch typical features

Supply voltage = Vcc = 0/+5 Vdc
Operatng temperature = TA = -50° C to 125 Deg C
Operating impedance = 50 Ohm
Input power for 1 dB
compression ( 5.0V system) = 37 dBm ( f = 0.5 to 3 Ghz)
Input third order Intercept = 64 dBm ( 0 to 5.0V system, f = 0.5 to 3 Ghz)
Operating frequency range = DC to 3 Ghz.
Insertion loss DC to 3 Ghz = 0.8 dB
Isolation DC to 3 Ghz = 14 dB minimum
Return loss DC to 3 Ghz = 20 dB
50% contl to 10/90 %
( ON/OFF) = 120 ns

A single stage RF amplifier as a gain block

A single stage RF amplifier summary specifications

Summary Specifications

Gain,  Operating: 19.5 dB
Operating frequency range: 1.0 – 2700 Mhz
OIP3: (Pout = 19.0 dBm),  -8.5 dBm
P1dB: 4.6 dBm
N.F: 4.2 dB
Supply voltage Operating: 3.3  – 5.5 Volts

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Supply current Supply = 5.0V,  23.0 mA

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Practical impedance matching

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