Can a small fabless analog vendor compete with the top five analog IC vendors in global markets? This question is being asked often, especially in the context of emerging Chinese end-system OEMs. Europe used to have many small analog IC specialists – most but not all have by now been acquired. In this case study, we will compare one such small but well-established company competing with the world’s largest analog company.
The challenge for small companies is to anticipate market needs and develop products that will be ahead of and differentiated from the competition. A competitive comparison can show how relatively similar products are introduced by one big (Texas Instruments) company and one small (Systemcom) company. In principle, their products function in the same way, but use different approaches regarding their target application-- IC products for photometry, electrochemical and radiation sensing with current input sensors.
Systemcom Ltd., a fabless IC design house with 16 employees and $1M revenue, launched in July 2012 an analog front end (AFE) IC -- with current input and 13-bit ADC. Their AFE is developed as a family of modular products, designed as IP modules, as well as a standalone ASIC solution.
• The solution in the form of an IP module is used when a customer builds a larger system (SoC) from proven and characterized building blocks. IP modules with different characteristics allow more flexibility in the design of an electronic system, resulting in the system optimized for the particular application. The IP modules are designed for an extended temperature range, so together with a consumer and industrial temperature range, the application field is quite broad.
• The product as an ASIC solution is developed for customers who want a complete system ready for production. The application of the AFE family is based on an electronic system having a sensor with the current input, as in photometry, electrochemical and radiation sensing.
Systemcom’s product targets broad general applications but is supported by the flexibility to allow customization of IP modules according to the customers’ needs.
In January 2013, Texas Instruments (TI) introduced at CES2013 the industry’s first integrated analog front end for photometry applications. TI, with over 35,000 employees including many from the former National and over $13B in revenue, is the largest analog IC vendor.
TI’s AFE IC also targets photometry applications, including clinical and home-use pulse oximeters, blood glucose meters, and heart rate monitors. Since actual trends are leading toward portable electronics for health monitoring and diagnostics for home use, with options for communication and control from a distance (telemedicine), it was predictable that TI would develop such a product. This particular IC represents a case of dedicated ICs with a known application and customer base in the medical device industry.
So how should the two companies have approached the same application? In this example, the difference is a laser-like focus on identified large volume OEMs versus a broader and more flexible offering to potentially more diverse customer groups.
Such approaches were expected and predictable but are very challenging for a small vendor which can’t afford many product misses. It requires a small team of design and application experts who are able to make a more general synthesis of diverse customer requirements. Once again, TI’s product line is sharply focused but it is also more limited and less flexible. Systemcom’s product line is very broad and flexible -- covering a range of market segments.
The most pronounced product line differences are shown in the table below. Brief comparison of AFE features