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2013: Quickening the Pace of Electronics Innovation?

Comments(2)Filed under: EDA tools, Top EDA companies, FinFET, Gary Smith, engineering, electronics design, semiconductor design, IC design

I look back at electronics innovation in 2013 through the rosy lens of a 2012 event.

In October of that year, I was driving across the California desert, and I watched--live--Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner sky dive from space. On my phone. I watched live-streaming video on my phone as I drove 75 mph across the desert. On a cellular network. For an hour. Never lost the signal. About an hour and a half east of Barstow, I saw Baumgartner tumble from his balloon capsule and hurtle toward Earth. Live!

That technological achievement hammered home the notion that we can do amazing things in and with electronics. Anything is possible as we build our bridges to the future. bridge to innovation

So along comes 2013. What happens? Moore's Law running out of gas? No problem. Let's go vertical.

Fast-moving Internet and consumer businesses looking for cutting-edge ways to differentiate and add value? No problem: Let's get vertical.

Of course these aren't trivial challenges and their solutions haven't appeared overnight, but the increasingly complexity of electronics design is not insurmountable. Three years ago, you couldn't watch Baumgartner free fall live much less imagine that you could in the future.

So let's take a quick tour of 2013's highlights and lowlights to get a better sense for where we're headed as an industry.

Going Vertical

FinFETs and 3D ICs promise "more than Moore" integration by packing a great deal of functionality into small form factors, while improving performance and reducing costs. While these engineering efforts were years in the making, they culminated in 2013. 

In January, a 14nm test chip was taped out in a collaboration involving Cadence, ARM, and Samsung. In the springtime, Cadence, ARM, and TSMC joined hands to tape out an ARM Cortex-A57 device at 16nm. Two months later, UMC taped out a 14nm FinFET device. It's the dawn of a new erain silicon design.

Getting Vertical

Cadence Senior Vice President, Marketing & Business Development Nimish Modi, summoning six years here and 18 at Intel, has a unique perspective on this trend. In an interview this fall, he put it simply:

"Companies want to differentiate at the higher-order bits, if you will, of the design flow: The system level, the software level. Application-driven system design is clearly where the industry is headed, and verticalization-which gave way to specialization starting in the 1970s-is making a comeback."

A new breed of systems companies is hiring enormous teams of engineers, when just a few years ago they were buying what amounted to off-the-shelf electronics to serve their system needs. They're designing their own system architectures because their business, storage, networking, and power-management needs are so unique that that's the most cost-effective path for them.

My colleague Frank Schirrmeister, writing on Semiengineering.com calls it the rise of the subsystem and new IP providers, and it has consequences for how silicon vendors define their value-add in the coming years.

That has enormous implications for EDA and IP providers. It's already transforming the industry, as Chris Rowen articulated at Design Automation Conference when he said the industry needs to "move past EDA." That his company, data plane processor pioneer Tensilica, was acquired by Cadence earlier this year speaks volumes to an EDA vendor navigating how to "move past EDA."

Tools Evolution

Meanwhile, vendors are working diligently to offer more holistic tool platforms and methodologies while wrestling with rising design complexity. The big focal points? According to Anirudh Devgan, senior vice president of Cadence's Digital and Signoff Group who presented at DAC, they include as we move into the FinFET era:

  • Extraction
  • Double patterning
  • DRC
  • Signoff

The industry is throwing enormous engineering- and brain-power at these issues, but, as ever, challenge remain and challenges emerge over time.

Big Picture Outlook

Take the overall structure and health of the electronics ecosystem: It's been a consolidating business for many years with slow or no growth from year to year. For all that the industry innovates and for its fundamental impact on global progress, this is astonishing to me.

Cadence CEO and venture capitalist Lip-bu Tan, in an interview earlier this year, said that while he's bullish on the EDA industry:

"If you look at the bigger picture, the semiconductor industry has not grown for the last few years and actually it's declining. That's troublesome for me. If the industry is not growing, it becomes a dog-eat-dog business."

Analyst Gary Smith of Gary Smith EDA told me EDA vendors "aren't being bold enough."

And then there opportunities that haven't materialized quite the way we'd hoped (at least yet). Fabrizio Sacchi of ST Microelectronics spoke for many when he looked back over his career and said one technology he thought would accelerate faster than it has is green electronics.

But there's always tomorrow and a potential breakthrough there or in any area of electronics innovation.

In fact some technologies emerge seemingly suddenly. Autonomous vehicles, for example. And embedded vision, as industry analyst and engineering consultant Jeff Bier told us this month.

Relentless challenges but tireless innovation. That was my view of 2013, where the technological and business-model changes portends an amazing 2014.


  • What do you think were among the most significant technological achievements of 2013?
  • What do you look forward to seeing come to pass in 2014?

Brian Fuller

Related stories:

-- Top Ten Cadence Community Blog Posts of 2013


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