Difficult vs. Differentiating

Understanding everything is no longer valuable, even if it’s possible.

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“Just because it’s difficult to do doesn’t mean it’s a differentiator.”

 

That succinct and rather meaty statement belongs to Aart de Geus at Synopsys, but most executives in the chip world have been spouting these kinds of revelations for months. There’s a fundamental shift underway, which is evolving from focusing on a single chip to seeing that chip as part of a system. The final product has become so complex that no single engineer can understand every facet of the development process with the same level of detail as in the past.

 

To many engineers, this is a career-changing concept. Understanding the underpinnings of chip design and development was considered invaluable, and the biggest rewards went to those who understood it best. That was then. This is now. Getting the job done quickly, with fewer people and fewer re-spins is paramount.

 

In many respects, tools like TLM 2.0 and IP-XACT work like a black box.  You don’t need to know all the details to make it work, which means an engineer with less training actually can do as much or more than someone mired in the old way of doing things. And clunky internally developed tools often are more of a hindrance than a help, even though the thinking among many managers is that they’ve already paid to develop the tools and therefore they’re free. They’re not. Inefficiency costs time and money.

 

And if this sounds like a huge change in the digital world, wait until it starts hitting the analog world. The economics of one-off designs, not to mention the time it takes to create them, are putting pressure on chip developers to adopt more standardized approaches. Digital was first, and even that hasn’t been an easy transition. Pushing from digital chips to complete systems, including application software, is still a huge challenge.

 

In the analog world, the whole design process has been stuck in the same place it’s been for the past several decades. The rule of thumb is that it takes 10 years to create a good analog engineer and it takes years to create a good analog design. As analog and digital find their way into the same system-level design process, no one can wait that long anymore. They have to work at the same process node—something most analog engineers will cringe at—and they have to be developed concurrently.

 

Automating development could shorten that time dramatically, but it will require wholesale changes in the ranks of established companies that have built a reputation on developing processes that age far more slowly than in the digital world. In the end, defining what is the best way of doing things is a business decision, not a scientific one—as painful as that realization may be.

 


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