HONG KONG In India, where people don't take for granted things like public utilities, Ravindra Kumar has enough to do designing the electronic circuits that will help keep the country's water clean and its electrical power running uninterrupted. But as the indefatigable assistant director of India's Electronics Research and Development Center, he also makes the time to woo foundry partners seeking to offer design services, as well as foreign manufacturers that might not otherwise have considered using ASIC technology to add intelligence to their products.
Kumar doesn't have access to the most advanced process technology, and he can't promise to finish a design in three months. Nevertheless, he said, he runs a no-nonsense, full turnkey design center that stresses rigorous quality and keeps costs to a fraction of the going rate in the United States.
It's a pitch that's attracting increasing attention.
Following his speech here earlier this month at the Asian Electronics Forum, Kumar was approached by fellow speaker Brian Klene, vice president of strategic planning for Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Ltd. The two agreed to a one-day parley at Klene's home in Singapore following the show.
For some time now, Chartered has been exploring how it can tap India's vast pool of EEs to support its own expansion into design services, an area in which foundries are becoming more involved. "In the Bay Area, we've already sent engineers on missions to India. But we haven't closed any deals yet," Klene said.
India's engineering prowess is no secret. Some large companies, among them Analog Devices, Cadence, Motorola, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments, already tap the country's engineers for circuit design and CAD-tool development.
Chartered, for its part, is making an effort to attract customers that want to build some intelligence into their products but do not necessarily have electronics design expertise. For example, Klene said, a power-tool manufacturer isn't likely to be well-versed in electronics design but might seek to integrate an IC into a saw so that the tool can automatically adjust the blade's alignment and speed of rotation to accommodate the material being cut.
"This fits right in with our work," Kumar said. "We would take responsibility for the entire product. A chain-saw maker doesn't know anything about electronics, so it would be up to us to design the ASIC."
Established in 1988, the R&D center that Kumar oversees has made it its business to find ways to use ASIC technology. It's been a gradual process; many companies in India are leery of using ASICs because of high non-recurring-engineering (NRE) charges and the risks involved if the chip is bug-ridden.
The design center therefore has a mandate to minimize costs and see the project through from concept to back-end design. As a rule, Kumar shows customers all available off-the-shelf options, such as a microcontroller with discrete components, before suggesting an ASIC. "VLSI hardware design is a rather new concept, and they're still not comfortable spending lots of money for NRE with the risk," he said.
For those who decide they want to go with a custom IC, Kumar said, the center takes pains to keep the NRE costs low by fully exploiting FPGA prototypes and spinning out few preliminary test chips before sending a design off for production. He said he's amazed at how so many preliminary ASIC designs today are sent to a foundry on a whim at $10,000 to $50,000 a pop.
"I would never tolerate an ASIC design done that way. We can't afford it," he said. "Basically, we have to analyze the hell out of the design."
To further keep costs under control, the R&D center has at its disposal front-end and back-end EDA tools and thus can generate all the process-layout parameters tailored to the foundry, rather than submit a net-list and pay the foundry partner to handle that chore.
Another important ingredient in controlling costs is the relatively low wages earned by Indian engineers. Kumar estimates that it costs his firm $1,500 a month to pay and maintain an engineer, compared with up to $15,000 per month in the United States. That's partly because of the dearth of career opportunities in India, a nation that annually graduates some 3,000 qualified circuit-design engineers from its more than 600 engineering colleges, Kumar said.
"They don't have any problem getting a job, but they must accept anything that comes their way," Kumar said. "Some electronic-circuit designers are going into administration or law. Unfortunately, my country can't absorb all of them."
The R&D center employs 220 EEs, 17 of whom are ASIC designers. Yet even the chosen few who are involved in circuit design are trained to be jacks-of-all-trades rather than specialists.
"My feeling is that ASIC designers can't work in isolation," Kumar said. "In some cases, the designer has to be asked to design a power supply for an ASIC.
"We don't compartmentalize our engineers. Today an engineer may design an ALU; tomorrow he may develop a DSP algorithm."
It's a philosophy Kumar no doubt cultivated throughout his 24-year career as an engineer. He cut his teeth designing industrial electronics systems, such as MPU-controlled dc and ac motor drives and uninterruptible-power-supply systems, at Kerala State Electronics Development Corp., where he worked for 14 years. He then moved to the electronics R&D center, where he honed his skills in IC design. He went on to receive further training in IC design during a yearlong stint with VLSI Technology in the early 1990s before returning to India to help manage the R&D center.
Just as the center's engineers are trained to be versatile, Kumar considers the design center itself the ultimate model of turnkey design. The center takes responsibility for system and product design, pc-board layout, system firmware, power-supply distribution, electromagnetic-interference protection, digital signal-processing design and algorithm development.
"An ASIC design center cannot by itself be successful unless it is closely linked to electronic-system integration, product engineering, pilot and volume manufacturing and reliability testing," Kumar said.
In one case, the R&D center designed a device for a home electronic-energy meter that integrated an 8-bit MPU, DSP, firmware and analog functions. As part of the job, the center completed the technology transfer to the foundry, oversaw field trials for 100 prototype systems and obtained IEC conformance. The final bill was $100,000 about one-fifth of what it would have cost to design the same product in the United States, said Kumar.
Cost, risk top concerns
The chip took one year to complete, which Kumar admits is too long for many OEMs involved in the highly competitive markets for electronics systems. Even so, he said most of his customers are less concerned with shortening time-to-market than with minimizing costs and reducing risk.
The design center has no shortage of projects. Kumar is negotiating with a domestic power company that is looking to build a remote terminal unit that will determine how to distribute electrical power to meet peak usage points without power loss. He's also talking to a manufacturer of water purifiers about designing a chip that could adjust the intensity of the UV light and alert users when the water filter needs to be changed.
That's not to say that Kumar won't take on more projects with foreign companies. Two years ago, the center worked with AT&T to develop algorithms for MPEG-4, and Kumar hopes to take on more such developments.
He admits that his international exposure is limited and that his staff isn't big enough to handle more than one major ASIC project a year. But he hopes to generate awareness for the R&D center by making more appearances at trade conferences and hobnobbing with executives. And with the oversupply of engineers in India, expanding his design team to take on more projects should be no problem.
"I'm looking forward to getting more foreign contracts. It's more fulfilling to me, and I have to admit I'm feeling a little bit cocooned now," he said.
"I can also start looking at charging international rates to improve our infrastructure."