SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- Known primarily as a sprawling contract manufacturer that builds everything from finished printed-circuit boards to plastic moldings, Singapore-based Flextronics International Ltd. is now trying to make a name for itself as a designer of custom ICs.
The company recently licensed the ARM7TDMI processor core from ARM Ltd., a move that Flextronics says will beef up its portfolio of "star intellectual-property" cores. The company has an existing license to furnish its ASIC customers with the ARCtangent configurable processor core from ARC International.
As part of the licensing agreement, ARM will train engineers working at Flextronics design centers in Niwot, Colo., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., on how to work with ARM design flows, core implementation, tools and peripherals.
It's all part of Flextronics' goal to become the premier vertically integrated electronics manufacturer. Though outsourcing the production of finished pc-boards is nothing new, Flextronics says there's a growing opportunity to design custom ICs and system-on-chip (SoC) devices for OEMs whose engineering resources have been cut to the bone during the downturn.
"Instead of just doing the pcb, assembly and enclosure we want to provide a total solution," said Kay Annamalai, director of marketing for embedded applications at Flextronics Semiconductor (Sunnyvale, Calif.). "We're targeting the same customers as we do for our manufacturing."
John Homin, Flextronics' director of marketing, said that some 80 percent of IC designs with embedded processors use the ARM core. Moreover, Flextronics' contract-manufacturing business is heavily weighted toward handheld devices and cellular phones, which tend to be a popular destination for the low-power RISC processor core.
The core will also be incorporated into Flextronics' ASIC-prototyping vehicle, a kind of hardware emulation system based on field-programmable gate arrays. Currently Flextronics is using Xilinx FPGAs to do the job, but it has plans to also bring in Altera devices with embedded ARM cores for ARM-based designs.
The prototyping vehicle has been useful for proving system functionality and hastening software code development earlier in the ASIC design cycle. Using this approach, Homin said Flextronics can reduce an ASIC development cycle from 19 to 16 months.
At the back end, Flextronics said it is collaborating with IC-packaging specialist Unitive Inc. on a flip-chip ball grid array that can accommodate 1,500 to 1,800 solder balls. For higher-volume applications that require lower cost, the company will field a quad flat pack flip-chip. The test vehicles for the packages are expected to be qualified this quarter, said director of product engineering Larry Mehringer.
Flextronics has been steadily expanding its ASIC presence since 1995, when it bought analog gate array provider KMOS. Two years ago, it acquired both DII, which gave it a stake in the FPGA-to-ASIC conversion business, and ASIC International, which helped the company kick off its SoC efforts. Flextronics claims its designers have had a stake in more than 800 ASIC designs.
Flextronics considers ASIC design the next logical step for a $13.1 billion company that has made cost reduction its mantra. If a printer manufacturer wants to add a USB port, for example, it could hand off an existing IC design to Flextronics instead of allocating its engineering resources for such a straightforward chore. "To continue to cost-reduce, we have to bring up our IC capabilities," said Homin.
Back in Orbit
Slightly more than half of the company's ASIC business is derived from FPGA conversions, a service that the company is seeking to expand as well. To build more awareness of this business, Flextronics has scrapped its On Core brand and will revive the Orbit name as Orbit Conversion, which Homin said will be more recognizable to customers. Orbit Semiconductor, which had specialized in FPGA conversions, was acquired by DII, which in turn was purchased by Flextronics. "Orbit spent so much money on the brand that it's still out there," Homin said.
Because it is still relatively new to SoC design, Flextronics Semiconductor often tends to draw as customers younger companies that may not have the kind of track record to entice some of the bigger ASIC providers. "Our portfolio has more smaller-startup companies than our competitors do," Homin said.
Though this could be seen as risky business, Flextronics uses United Microelectronics Corp. and Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing as its primary foundries, so it does not have a direct exposure to the cost of building and maintaining its own fabrication facility. Other companies following this model include eSilicon and Intel's Microelectronics Services division.