Is IC design productivity rising or falling? It’s a question on the minds of semiconductor executives and R&D managers throughout the industry. The answer depends on whether we view it in absolute versus relative terms. Both have merit. In absolute terms it’s rising, but in relative terms it’s falling.
A “relative” measurement compares changes in productivity to changes in design complexity: How much is productivity increasing compared to the increase in design complexity? Through that lens, productivity is falling, and recently the decline has become steeper. How do I know? Aside from rigorously measuring it for more than 10 years, I know that design team sizes have been steadily increasing – the facts and data irrefutably confirm it. That means productivity isn’t keeping pace with rising design complexity. The “escape hatch” solution has been to increase design team size – throw more engineers at the problem. Alternatively, if productivity was keeping pace or increasing, average team size would be flat or declining, respectively.
Of course, in absolute terms, productivity is increasing: Productivity this year is higher than last year, and last year it was higher than the previous year, and so on. That’s also irrefutable – again, based on the facts and data. Consider the effort required to design a million-transistor SoC ten years ago versus what it takes today. No comparison – teams expend much less effort today than they did then.
Absolute year-over-year productivity improvement (or decline) is critically important to an R&D organization’s productivity improvement initiative, but it is not important from an industry-level standpoint. Rather, the relevant concern there is whether productivity is keeping pace with combination of three inextricably intertwined forces: increasing design complexity, time-to-market pressure and global competition.
Declining “relative-productivity” is occurring even in the face of more design reuse, better EDA tools, new methodologies, etc. No doubt these things are boosting “absolute productivity,” but they aren’t enough to keep engineering managers and executives from continuously boosting team size. What will be the impact on the semiconductor industry?
Ronald Collett is president and CEO of Numetrics, which provides fact-based project planning and benchmarking software that improves IC development productivity and schedule predictability.