The Indispensables: The Diverse Electronic System Design Ecosystem

Key innovations that helped shape the semiconductor industry.


My summer of 2021 reading included a book called “The Indispensables: The Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware” by Patrick K. O’Donnell. The book told the thrilling and largely forgotten history of the fishermen from Marblehead, Mass., a town 20 miles north of Boston, and their critical role in the Revolutionary War.

Most of us who grew up in the U.S. recognize the iconic painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River without knowing the “Headers,” as they’re known, rowed him across the river under the cover of darkness in grueling conditions. That and many other acts of bravery helped the upstart United State of America win the Revolutionary War.

I can’t help drawing a parallel between the indispensable Marbleheaders and the extraordinary community of developers from the electronic system design community and their tools that have supported the semiconductor industry since the 1970s. Of course, developers of chip design hardware and software didn’t face the harsh conditions, lack of proper tools, starvation, or financial ruin. For our community, our tools are indispensable and continue to be through every evolution (not revolution). They help catalyze innovation and technical breakthroughs and, much like the diverse soldier-mariners, our diverse global community helped shape the latter-day semiconductor industry.

A good example comes from Lucio Lanza, managing partner of Lanza techVentures, an ESD Alliance member, who often describes the move from custom ICs to semi-custom ICs in the 1980s as a game-changer. Despite intense criticism, the move to semi-custom design, a result of the efforts of early electronic design automation (EDA) pioneers Daisy, Mentor and Valid, broadened the range of design tool offerings and engineering expertise. Expanding the design space to include semi-custom ICs produced a new community of engineers who proved they didn’t need to be experts to do chip design. It also produced a new market segment.

Another dramatic example is the introduction of logic synthesis technology in the late 1980s, moving design from the transistor to gate level, then register transfer level and further up the levels of abstraction. The ability to design in higher levels of abstraction opened the door for a new breed of chip designer that didn’t have a circuit design background. It doesn’t take much imagination to identify which electronics device markets benefitted from this particular advance.

More accomplishments, too numerous to mention, are part of the storied history of the electronic system design ecosystem. Today especially, the latest developments in semiconductor processes and new applications profit from the creativity, ingenuity and immense talent found in the electronic system design ecosystem –– where electronics begins. Dean Drako, president and CEO of IC Manage, an ESD Alliance member, and member of our Governing Council, has a passion for the system design sector that includes IP. He, like many of us, believes it is the greatest business in the world because it’s the confluence of hardware and software design. “It takes some of the smartest people in the world … because you need to be knowledgeable of both hardware and software.”

The electronic system design ecosystem continues to provide powerful automation tools and an abundant supply of semiconductor intellectual property critical to complex chip design enablement. In comparison to the $500-billion semiconductor market, the electronic system design ecosystem seems small at about $10-$15 billion. Yet, much like the Marbleheaders, it has an outsized role in chip design as well as supporting the advancement of new semiconductor processes.

Design automation and IP suppliers collaborate closely with the semiconductor foundries to develop the design platforms needed to support new advanced processes, just as the Headers did with General Washington and his senior lieutenants. This cycle of collaboration is well established and required to move the semiconductor industry forward with new process innovations.

Addendum: One of our own –– Nanette Collins –– grew up in Marblehead, considered the birthplace of the American Navy. While she is originally from Chicago, she considers herself a Header. Ask her about the town’s history sometime or, if you are visiting Boston, ask her to show you around.

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