New Tools, New Economics

In the future, the success of new tools will be much more closely tied to the economics of Moore’s Law.


The race is on to get new development tools out the door, and starting next month you’ll begin seeing many more of them.


Timing is everything, and these tools have to be ready for the next round of chip development—even if the chips aren’t being designed yet. But given that electronics design has to precede an industry recovery by 6 to 12 months, at the very least, and chips and other components have to be ready ahead of the market, there are rumblings in the ESL space that new products are on the way.


The biggest splash, of course, will be at the architectural and design engineering pain points. There will be advances in analog, prototyping and verification—as well as broader areas such as DFM and ESL. The goal of tools vendors is to get these new products into the hands of companies before summer. That way engineers can begin experimenting with them and understand their value. All of this is part of the normal—or abnormal, in this case—boom/bust cycle of semiconductor industry, and we’re about to leave the bust behind.


Don’t go spending your pennies yet, though. If electronic design is an early indicator of the economy, then ESL tools are an early, early indicator—sort of like the groundhog of Punxsatawny. Sales of those tools are a step further down the path of recovery, once they’re evaluated and compared against offerings from rival companies. Getting help to use them is even further down the path. Jobs are a trailing indicator, meaning that even after business picks up it will be months before hiring is back in vogue. And for all the people who are still working, but now doing the jobs of three people, the best you can hope for is that the new tools make your job simpler and less time consuming.


How much less time consuming remains to be seen. The blistering pace of Moore’s Law and the growing complexity of SoCs at every node makes the need for integrated tools even more important than in the past. What was a “nice-to-have” approach to tools is now a matter of survival, and complexity coupled with shorter market windows could well mean no net gains in productivity. Staying still in a strong current is now considered something of a breakthrough.


All of this should prove to be good news for some tools vendors. The question is which ones, and this will enter into the decisions of engineers about which tools are okay to buy. Best in class now has to be weighed against integrated best in class, which may or may not be the same. Engineers no longer have time to go fiddling with integrating tools into an internal flow. That all has to be done up front, whether it’s by one of the big EDA vendors or a startup with a breakthrough technology. Moreover, engineers can’t spend weeks gaining proficiency unless there is a reward of even more time saved than was spent gaining that proficiency.


Moore’s Law has always been an economic law, even if it requires physical engineering to work. The tools world has been only loosely tied to it, and frequently completely out of sync. In the future, these two will progress much more in tandem.


From a macro economic point of view, barring any more major disasters we will see a recovery begin sometime in the next couple quarters. The recovery will be enabled by new tools and fueled by new technologies. But the big question is not when but what—namely what the industry will look like when we really come out of the downturn. The success of these new tools may say much more about the new face of the industry than what we have seen in the past.


–Ed Sperling



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