Waste Not, Want Not (for Innovation)

I attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year. I joined the hordes that scramble to see the next cool thing. And I did. I left Las Vegas without a shred of doubt (as opposed to how I usually leave Las Vegas) that the world is poised for explosive demand for life-changing electronics, whether you measure it by the pocketful, the corporation, the country or the continent. Every person and square inch of the globe is a candidate for automation. That’s good. We in the semiconductor industry power these gadgets, and we can be certain of continuous demand for as long as we want to make them.

Well, not so fast. That is, continuous demand for those of us who CAN make them. You see, the way things are tracking, fewer and fewer folks can deliver to the market those ICs that are worthy of being used 10 or 20 million times to satisfy the next great handset or compute device. And that’s too bad. It’s not like the big ideas are limited to the big companies. Our industry is a living history of small-company innovation resulting in grand outcomes. But it’s different now. The costs to develop the next big thing are skyrocketing and only the rich can play.

I think that’s wrong. But it’s not a question of fairness. It’s a question of profit. Why should the industry deny itself access to the greatest ideas because the entry costs are too high? Clearly, it shouldn’t.

That’s why eSilicon is committed to the deployment of efficiency tools and services that cut the waste, save the time, improve the outcome and otherwise enable the small (and large) company engineer to level the playing field, democratizing the process once again. I say “again” because the advent of the fabless semiconductor industry in the early nineties gave rise to a surge in start-up innovation and productivity. It enabled the delivery of massive technological solutions and created the likes of Qualcomm, Broadcom and, of course, Joe’s Chip and Screen Door Corporation. Don’t remember Joe’s? Well, I barely do either but it’s one of hundreds that got rolled up into the juggernauts we know today. We’ve lived through the greatest era of small company innovation. Why can’t it be rekindled?

It can. Last fall we launched a free, online multi-project wafer (MPW) tool that enables users to receive a quote for a slot on an MPW in minutes instead of days to weeks. The typical saving can be several days. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of these quotes generated each year industry-wide. Now, if we can save that time for a fraction of the MPWs crafted each year, how much can the industry save across multiple applications, multiple technologies, tools and companies? My guess is that the full value starts to look like an actual market segment and not just a small cost reduction.

Consolidation of an industry has merit. But lost innovation does not. It’s the latter that defines the semiconductor industry. Look to eSilicon to continue down the path of enabling engineers from corporations of all sizes to tackle the toughest IC problems, and give us all a reason to return to Las Vegas each year for the awe, grandeur and excitement. You may even visit CES and see some cool electronics.

CSR in Semis

A different approach to corporate social responsibility

For decades the largest industries in the world have deployed corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives that, on their surface, are designed to “give back” or “share the wealth” with the communities that have produced the labor force that drive their collective success. We are also told that CSR is good business and can be correlated with improved branding and greater profitability. Based upon the number of corporations that participate in some CSR activity I must conclude it is, in fact, good business to be aware of the needs of your broader community. It’s the ultimate investment: get paid for doing the right thing.

It’s not unlike the ubiquitous hotel room signs that ask you to save the planet by allowing them to not change your sheets or replace your towels. The truth is it does save natural resources to give your favorite Marriott a hall pass and sleep on day-old sheets. But it also saves the hotel in labor, cleaning supplies and utilities costs to do the right thing. These are righteous programs.

Recently, eSilicon has initiated its own CSR program. We have put our creative and useful “eMPW” engineering tool on our website and are offering its capabilities to the world for free. In a nutshell, you can build a multi-project wafer (MPW) spec at GLOBALFOUNDRIES or TSMC in about 5 minutes. The system will provide all the technical information with some intelligence and generate an executable quote in minutes, not weeks. However, and this is the different part, you are also welcome to take all the capability and detail and run over to the foundry directly, ask them for their direct quote and otherwise use everything we have provided you.

So, why are we doing this? Well, we believe that too much waste is cramping semiconductor profitability. Certainly, the sheer costs have all but eliminated startup companies. Our view, in fact our business model, is that more resources should be applied to innovation and far less to rote activities like MPW planning, a function we automated a while back. Further, we believe if all of us participated in a modest way with providing the industry, gratis, with one tool, one block of IP, we could meet the larger goal of increasing the profit pie and share accordingly.

And just like the hotel chain looking to profitably reduce its carbon footprint, we believe that our contributions will, in fact, continually enhance our brand, endear us to hard-working engineers and ultimately increase our bottom line. Several users have already asked us to provide the MPW to them and for that we make a modest profit.

The semiconductor industry is the heart of the internet, the cloud and computing. Yet, we collectively fail to use what we make. By availing the world of valuable tools on our website, increasing the efficiency of our industry’s engineers, and simply saving time and money, we are making a bold first step to demonstrate that a CSR viewpoint is good for our ecosystem and good for eSilicon.

Give it some thought and find a way to launch your own righteous program. And, in the meantime check out ours at www.esilicon.com/mpw.

So—Who Wants to Change the Universe?

I attended an outside board meeting this week. During the down time some of the other directors and I were discussing the state of affairs in the industry. Let’s face it, as Rodney Dangerfield said in Back to School, “It’s a jungle out there.” I made the comment that while I am inclined to dissuade young folks from going into the semiconductor industry, for us older guys, it couldn’t be more fun.

I’m not sure either point is right. After all, we continue to face and resolve some of the most challenging technical problems on the globe. What fresh out wouldn’t love to be part of that? Conversely, why do we veterans get so excited about shrinking ASPs and geometrically increasing risk? What’s with that?

I subsequently realized I was on the wrong vector altogether. It’s not about young vs. old, new vs. traditional. Instead, it’s everything about working in a community, a very small community, of innovators that consistently work miracles and place the equivalent of a large city onto a microscopic nay, picoscopic, grid that will perform the functions of a data center from just 20 years ago. That’s why I love it.

Sure, acquisitions are consolidating the landscape at an increasing rate. The big are getting bigger…and they should. It’s their right as the conquering armies. But, let’s not confuse that with the daily conquering of technological challenges that raise their ugly heads with each new, bigger, badder IC. In this sense, the conquering army may be a ten-person company funded with $500K of angel investment. The conquered may not be a company but, rather, an unpredictable physical behavior in a 28nm SOC.

Either way, young or old, we are conquerors and slayers; masters of a universe that transcends the better part of humanity. We are an entire industry, a fraction of the size of Wal-Mart, that delivers wht may be the greatest value in the history of mankind, and we do it with predictability, practicality and enough collective profits to come back and fight another day.

It’s obvious that there is no longer a green field opportunity for our next generation to found Intel or AMD, Broadcom or Qualcomm. But there is an undeniable opportunity to take barely 50 years of head start and leverage it to what might be, finally, the total and ubiquitous deployment of semiconductor technology, not just to every corner of this planet, but, quite literally, to other planets.

So, to those people, of all ages, who want to change the universe, I say welcome to the semiconductor industry. Buckle up…