TAIPEI, Taiwan IC design houses in Taiwan expect difficulties in quickly designing cost-effective system-on-chip products based on reusable intellectual property cores will be a key challenge as the island tries to become a provider of higher value products and services.
Many of Taiwan's IC design shops hope to carve out markets by developing intellectual property (IP) or providing SoC products that can be reused, sold, licensed or bartered to other companies. The industry is targeting complex SoCs and is being encouraged by government-funded think tanks to move into broadband and wireless communication products.
"This is a key challenge for the continued growth of the Taiwan IC design industry," said Paul Lin, director of the SoC center at Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). The quasi-government agency has partnered with local industry to further the island's experience with system-on-chip design, especially within the mixed-signal and radio frequency IC arenas, and is pushing for closer ties between design companies and system houses. The goal is to get the design and system houses working more intimately on determining specifications for products.
Elan Microelectronics Corp., for instance, is reaching out to system houses in China and hopes to benefit from the ongoing IT infrastructure upgrade backed by the Taiwan government. "There are many strong system houses in China. However in terms of bringing chips to market they are not so strong. They can provide a solution but they are not able to provide chips the most cost effective way," said Steve Yang, a senior executive at Elan, which focuses on mixed-signal SoC designs.
Gaining more system experience is perhaps the most pressing matter for IC design houses, said Wey Yih-sheng, president of State of the Art Technology. "Taiwan is good on providing a low-cost solution, yet it is relatively weak on designing reusable IP with system-level integration capability. This is the area where Taiwan may face a big challenge," he said.
Ironically, the strength of Taiwan in the past bringing products quickly to market may become something of an Achilles heel in the future as design firms try to move away from purely ASIC-based design methodologies. Companies struggle to complete designs for their immediate design cycle, so thinking about future reuse of IP isn't a priority, industry executives said.
"When we create IP, most of the time we already have a specific product in mind," said Chin Wu, president of Acer Labs Inc., a designer of PC chip sets. "So when you finish one IP, the next time it doesn't have flexibility of reuse. And for future products, a different designer won't know the characteristics of the IP because the product design cycle was not well documented."
At this early stage of SoC design in Taiwan, the industry needs to focus as much as possible on using silicon-proven IP with a mass production record, Wey said. Additionally, design methodologies must be created for system-chip integration in order to verify that the integration is correct and to tell if each individual piece of IP is performing according to specification. Finally, he suggested that more emphasis be placed on con-current engineering among front-end, back-end, and software engineers.
At the same time, the Taiwanese are also trying to tackle issues associated with how much IP they should license from other companies. To speed up design cycles, it's quicker to use silicon-proven IP from other companies. But there is a downside for such deals, some Taiwanese said.
"There will be more product overlapping and the competition will become more fierce," said Yang of Elan. "In our eyes, we're not designing a product that no one else can provide. It's just that we can provide a solution that's more cost-efficient. If all your competitors can license the same IP then it is hard to bring about the cost differentiation. So, in our eyes, to bring down the cost you must be able to provide a different kind of design instead of licensing IP from other companies."