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.
I agree completely about the difficulty of getting standards in place. Tough to make happen when consensus is needed -- kind of like trying to get agreement a the United Nations. Lots of posturing, spin and lip service, which of course is not at all surprising. Much easier when a de facto standard arises, typically driven by a company with significant market power that has introduced a technology that demonstrates clear value-add. Thanks for your comment. Ron
I agree that there needs to be better tools for mixed signal design. The EDA vendors have done a good job on the tools for pure digital design since that is the easier case. The design community has to work with the EDA companies to get tools for analog and mixed signal. The problem is that the standards need to be put in place first so that the tools can benefit everyone. Most companies see their design flow as a strategic advantage so they don't have the desire for standardization.
You may very well be right, but I don't see more innovation than we've already seen coming out of the EDA industry. The market isn't growing much and the competition in the EDA industry is stiff, which means that the risk-return equation for venture capital funding is out of balance. The consequence is less investment in start-ups. So the innovation must come from larger EDA companies, which is always spotty. Thanks for your comment. Ron
Yes, exactly -- relative productivity continues to decline, whereas absolute productivity continues to rise. It's an inconvenient truth that executive management needs to face. Thanks for your comment. Ron
I would argue the main reason for low productivity is the lack if innovation in EDA industry. IC designers have to deal with many point tools by different vendors and some of them dont even work well with others. If you design an analog circuit in once process node, you have completely redesign the circuit & layout to make it work in another process node. Basically I feel the EDA tool should be able to mask all the physical design challenges that come up in lower process nodes from the circuit/logic designers to improve the productivity.
Ron, the key is the metric here...sure it takes more people to design an IC today, 100+ designers is not unheard of...but each designs lots of transistors or gates, much more than in the past...so in terms of the first metric productivity drops, in terms of the second it increases...Kris
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