Self-Service Semiconductors

The semiconductor industry made the Internet possible, but it has been slow to use the technology in its own processes.

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The era of self-service is here. Whether you’re in a restaurant, shopping center, airport or cruising the Web, you have more options than ever to browse, research, choose and transact business with little to no human interaction.

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Self-service isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s been around a long time. What is new is the pervasive use of high-tech automation to deliver experiences that are easy, intuitive, informative and transparent. Anyone who has bought something through Amazon.com will know what I mean. The massive cloud-based infrastructure behind the experience offered by websites like Amazon.com is made possible by the worldwide semiconductor industry.

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We tend to glamorize handheld applications and ingenious user interface design, but the truth is that none of it would work without the smartphone, communications network and massive compute infrastructure behind it. All of that technology relies on the semiconductor industry and its marvel of miniaturization, the system-on-chip (SoC) device.

Oddly, the very industry that made the Internet and all this automated commerce possible isn’t really a power user of its own technology. Designing SoCs, procuring the required semiconductor IP and then interfacing with a worldwide supply chain to build the chip is filled with phone calls, emails, faxes and rather Byzantine processes. Does it have to be this way? Maybe not.

About six months ago, eSilicon launched an automated portal for multi-project wafer (MPW) booking. An MPW is basically the high-tech equivalent of a ride-share program. Rather than one customer paying for all the manufacturing materials and time required to process an SoC on a wafer lot, a group of customers share the cost, inserting many different chips on the wafer lot. It’s a low-cost way to get your idea prototyped in silicon. Some even use it to source low-volume production at dramatically reduced cost.

Using traditional methods typically takes a week to book a slot on an MPW run. There are phone calls or email inquiries regarding the available schedule, technology choices to make, checklists of deliverables to be assembled and legal agreements to be reviewed. Through a series of automated interfaces to its worlwide supply chain, eSilicon collapsed the whole process into a simple “fill in the blanks” interface on its Web site. It takes about two minutes to fill in the form, and once you’re done you immediately receive an executable quote for a slot on the MPW run of your choice. One week vs. two minutes.

In the six months since its launch, more than 150 companies, universities and individuals have registered to use the portal. The registrations have come from all over the world, and include research labs, professors, university students, startups and mainstream semiconductor and IP companies, both small and large. More than 300 quotes have been generated automatically through the portal. Everything from 350nm to 20nm has been quoted. Some users generate mutiple quotes with different options. This exploration of alternatives isn’t practical if each iteration takes a week. When it’s two minutes, it’s a different story.

We’re seeing a nice rise in MPW bookings as a result of all this self-service automation as well. So the question is, “Is this self-service semiconductor portal a one-of-a-kind thing, or are we seeing the dawn of a new era of self-service automation for the industry that made the Internet possible?” Time will tell. In the meantime, you can check out our MPW portal here.