Fear Of Failure

The cost of making mistakes is rising dramatically, but the cost of playing it safe may be even higher.

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For the past five decades, failure in the semiconductor world was nothing to be ashamed of. Mistakes were a sign of experience, and even some of the most spectacular errors in judgment didn’t cost design teams their jobs or deter more experimentation.

 

As we move down into the realm of 45nm and beyond, that’s no longer the case. Mistakes can cause an entire project to be shut down forever, and the team that made the mistake to be tossed out and replaced. Finding qualified replacements at the moment is not particularly challenging. But depending upon the size of the company and the investment in a project, mistakes also can inflict mortal wounds on the company itself.

 

At the leading edge of design, a single mistake and missed market window can cost in excess of $100 million. It can dry up a lucrative and longstanding customer relationship in a market where the potential customers can be counted on one hand. And it can eat into the profitability and market perception of even the largest semiconductor companies.

 

This is a fundamental exercise in risk management where all the variables are not known, and it could have some interesting ramifications for chip development in the future. At the very least, we are entering a stage where companies need to be able to gauge effectively when to pull the plug on development projects and move on. That will require much better communication up and down the design flow than has ever existed in the past, bringing together more parts of the flow at once.

 

If the software developers can’t write the software, then the hardware engineers need to know that. If there are changes in the hardware that could affect the software, that has to be communicated early, as well. And if the verification team is running into massive problems dealing with multiple power islands or stacked die models, then the project managers need to know that in a realistic time frame.

 

Perhaps even scarier than failure, however, is the fear of failure and what that will mean to innovation. Hollywood is a classic example of this, which is why we’re about to get a remake of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and why we’re seeing yet another Terminator movie being released. With movies costing more than $100 million to make, no one wants to make a mistake.

 

In the chip world, this is a new phenomenon, and the big concern is that we’re going to ratchet down innovation and the rush to new nodes in an effort to play it safe–or simply hang back a couple nodes until the process is worked out. Ultimately, however, the cost may prove much higher than the cost of failure. Rather than losing a design team or even a company, it could mean the loss of an entire market’s potential, which is incalculable.

 

The good news is the risk is spread across multiple companies. The bad news is some of those companies won’t be around to gloat because the differences between one and another won’t be significant enough to warrant more than a couple competitors.

 

–Ed Sperling


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