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25 Anniversary: Enabling Electronics' Big Embrace

Comments(1)Filed under: Cadence, EDA tools, Brian Fuller, embedded systems, EDA vendors, electronics design, semiconductor design, semiconductor companies, 25th anniversary, semiconductor industry, green energy, embedded systems design, ST Microelectronics, smart energy, Fabrizio Sacchi

To give you some context for his historical viewpoint, Fabrizio Sacchi's first design was a 70-transistor preamp for a television remote control. He worked on that at a time when Bettino Craxi became Italy's prime minister and Ronald Reagan was in his first term as U.S. president.

ST Microelectronics' Fabrizio Sacchi

Today, Sacchi supports a division within ST Microelectronics developing products for some of the main telecommunication equipment manufacturers.

"So you can imagine the complexity of these types of devices," he chuckles when he compares today's projects to his 30-year-old preamp design.

Because of his experience and his history with a global semiconductor giant like ST, Sacchi (pictured, right) is a perfect engineer to talk to for perspective, as we continue our series on electronics design innovation as part of Cadence's 25th anniversary.

Looking back, Sacchi sees two enormous engineering achievements that also served as design influences: mobile computing and the Internet. A third potential driver-green energy-has not lived up to what he thought its promise would be.

For the first two, Sacchi said it's hard to pick the more influential technological achievement.

"They impacted all the people in advanced societies and to a lesser degree populations in less-advanced societies," he said of the Internet and mobile communications. And the technologies very quickly revolutionized countless aspects of culture.

He said:

"Many years ago I read that the farmers in Indian villages were obliged to sell rice at prices imposed by the dealers because they couldn't communicate with each other and negotiate the price. With the first low-cost cell phones, the farmers were able to break this dealer monopoly by communicating with each other."

Promise postponed?

It has been in the area of green technology where the promise has fallen short over the years, Sacchi believes (although he still holds out hope that it will take firm root soon).

He said:

"Frankly speaking, I was more optimistic on green technology. All this is related to ecology and energy sources, reduction in pollution and so on. In this field, the world has to do better."

He remains optimistic, however, because it's all about cost. Right now the cost of fossil fuel sources remains relatively low, but once, for instance, petroleum prices rise sharply, then a tipping point should occur, Sacchi believes.

Relentless innovation

Sacchi looks back on a career and an electronics-industry evolution that's marked by increasingly productive engineering teams that tackled thornier problems, while EDA vendors kept pace with new products and services.

At the time of his 70-transistor preamp, Sacchi worked among small, focused analog design teams. But over time, Moore's Law and innovation saw teams growing and adding system know-how to their designs, "to put it into a more complex system to understand what's around our product. So we added verification experts to the team and then software engineers."

"It was and is a never-ending story to add complexity to our environment," Sacchi added.

Today, for example, a few meters from his office at ST Microelectronics sits an optics expert. This symbolizes ST's "More than Moore" strategy, in which sensors, optics, and other non-traditional semiconductor features are combined along the march into the next great system-design frontier.

Amid the evolution, Sacchi tips his hat toward EDA vendors for a singular innovation that's propelled engineering teams to new levels of productivity: mixed-signal verification. He calls this the biggest improvement in the field of verification.

Today mixed signal is analog plus digital plus some behavioral description of electronic components, but it's not enough.

"We will never finish," he said.

Challenges ahead

But design challenges remain, particularly as engineering teams using contemporary tools are confronting tomorrow's problems right now and wishing they had tomorrow's tools.

"Every time we are writing something new, it's not necessarily in the mind of the EDA vendor," he said. "Now we're developing something with electronics and optics and there is no solution for codesign."

He believes EDA needs to begin to deliver solutions outside the traditional electronic-design automation world and deliver them soon.

He pointed to thermal issues in design. There are some point solutions but they're early in their development and not integrated into broader platforms and methodological flows. In some cases, he said, ST Microelectronics engineers build a solution themselves and use an Excel spreadsheet for analysis purposes.

There's a similar challenge for mechanical issues: something starts to be available, for example for 3D-IC design, but isn't usable in production by the design teams, Sacchi said.

For many semiconductor vendors, these topics may not be a priority, but for a company like ST Microelectronics-which is differentiating itself with "More than Moore" solutions-it's vital.

He sees other challenges for semiconductor vendors in general, almost midway through the second decade of the 21st century.

He describes today's environment as a "digital business, in the sense that if you have the right products, you are in; if not, you are out."

Asserting "there is no middle ground," Sacchi added: "You have to have the right vision, otherwise you're dead."

Cost is king

A second industry challenge is and will always be cost. Silicon vendors (fewer of them today) can shoulder the burden of owning their own fabs, but even fabless companies have to negotiate pricing with foundries. Contracts and costs ebb and flow with changes in supply and demand over time.

Third, partnerships are increasingly crucial to success, Sacchi said.

"You have to do the right choices with your partners. You can't do everything," Sacchi said, adding that the right customers also are key to success.

So what does this longtime industry veteran see as the most important future trends in electronics design?

Sacchi said:

"I don't see one single technology that will have a disruptive impact. I see a continuous penetration of electronics into all aspects of our lives. Mechanics, MEMs we are developing at ST, 3D printers and also data communication and transfer. Don't forget medicine and, hopefully, green technology. There is convergence of electronics in a lot of things."

Brian Fuller

Related stories:

--25th Anniversary: Innovation Evolution Through One Customer's Eyes

--Q&A: Phil Moorby, Verilog Inventor and Cadence Fellow, Sees a Parallel Future

--25th Anniversary: Hogan on EDA History and Three Little Words



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