The current economic downturn has redefined how OEMs evaluate development projects. "Long term" doesn't have quite the same meaning it once did. Investing in a project that may, or may not, pay off years down the road is a bit more difficult to do when your company's survival is at stake in the here and now. Every dollar invested today is a dollar that cannot be used tomorrow. And every factor that adds risk to a current project must be carefully weighed against its potential impact on the long-term viability of the company.
Furthermore, time-to-market is more important than ever. No one knows what the next high-demand application will be, but once the market agrees on that assessment, the competition to develop products first will be more intense than ever.
This shift in perspective is having a profound impact on the semiconductor industry. Last year ASIC starts dropped to half the number launched in 1998. As the industry continues to migrate toward smaller, more-difficult-to-manufacture process geometries, skyrocketing nonrecurring-engineering (NRE) costs are forcing customers to carefully review their design needs.
Semiconductor manufacturers in today's economic climate must offer their customers a wide range of options and support. OEMs that want technology optimized for particular applications need a semiconductor manufacturer with a wide range of design experience and the expertise to craft a custom solution that best fits their particular needs for performance, cost and time-to-market. NEC Electronics, for example, offers comprehensive, standard-cell ASIC solutions as well as structured-ASIC technology.
In many instances, a structured ASIC may offer a more compelling option than its full-custom alternative. By predefining the lower metal layers and leaving only the top layers available to customize for specific application requirements, these new architectures can be used by OEMs to better address the growing number of designs that require higher complexity and performance than an FPGA or gate array, but won't be sold in high enough volume to support the NRE costs associated with a new cell-based design.
Through a structured-ASIC platform, semiconductor manufacturers can offer their customers a shorter, faster track to a final production-ready product while limiting their risk by minimizing up-front costs. Most importantly, these versatile new architectures increase an OEM's flexibility. If market conditions change and production volumes increase, the customer can easily and inexpensively migrate from a structured ASIC to a cell-based design.