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.
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.
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.
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."
Companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook,
and Amazon are 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."
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:
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
"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
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
- What do you think were among the most significant technological
achievements of 2013?
- What do you look forward to seeing come to pass in
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