SAN FRANCISCO The semiconductor could see widespread adoption of so-called "restrictive design rules" (RDR) as a way to ensure acceptable yield and return on investment at the 32-nanometer node, according to Gary Smith, a managing vice president and chief EDA analyst at Gartner Inc.
Speaking to a crowded hotel ballroom at the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI) Market Symposium here Monday (July 10), Smith said "four or five" large semiconductor companies, including IBM Corp., are already working on RDR, or structured regular silicon, which involves creating chips from wafers of pre-designed arrays of logic cells.
Similar in concept to FPGAs, the theory behind RDR, according to Smith, is that a regular array is significantly easier to manufacture than a semi-random array of cells.
RDR has been gaining steam in technical papers and presentations for the past several years. According to Smith, RDR has been proven out at 45-nm by IBM.
Widespread adoption of RDR, which critics say could restrict innovation by stifling designers' creativity, would require a radical change in mindset, but according to Smith, may be the most efficient way to sidestep the design-for-manufacturability (DFM) challenges that projected to increasingly decimate yields at future nodes.
"When push comes to shove, when things get really hard, we change the design methodology," Smith said. "We've done that a few times."
The forthcoming adoption of RDR, Smith said, is a replay of the design situation in the 1970s, when many companies adopted the newly created ASIC model, but custom design remained an option for some.
Smith told the crowd that DFM solutions offered by vendors so far have not been aimed at actual design teams, but layout engineers. The concept of yield awareness will eventually be embedded in physical design products like place-and-route tools, he said. This, he said, has the potential to be a driver for growth in IC CAD tools, which has stagnated in recent years.
A recent highly publicized introductions of a foundry process model by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) has not solved the fundamental problem of providing access to necessary process information to the majority of fabless companies, Smith said. The model's encryption does not provide enough security, Smith said, and TSMC has been wary of providing the model to anyone but its largest customers, offering DFM services to others instead.
"[Providing DFM services] is a very unnatural situation for the foundries," Smith said. "They don't like it at all. Basically they are becoming ASIC vendors, and that's not what they want to do. But they are between a rock and a hard place, because they don't want to give up their process model."
But Smith suggested that DFM tools may be a mere "band-aid" for the industry, anyway. In order to move past roadblocks, Smith said, the industry must adopt new EDA tools, process equipment or design methodologies. For the past several technology nodes, the industry has moved forward by changing EDA tools or process equipment, Smith said.
"EDA tools and/or semi equipment have saved the day for the last four process nodes," Smith said. "For now, immersion lithography has saved the day for 45-nm." But at 32-nm, the industry will likely be forced to address "the silicon problem," he said.