Chipless by design

OTTAWA – First came the fabless model, in which chip-design firms switched from making their own integrated circuits in expensive fabrication facilities or fabs to contracting the design out to specialists called foundries. Now, according to speakers at a conference on microelectronics in Ottawa this week, division of labour in the chip business is moving to the next step. “Chipless” companies that design parts of chips and make their money selling those designs to others will play a growing role in the industry.

With chips incorporating more and more transistors and companies building so-called “systems on a chip” that perform many functions, it is getting harder for one firm to do the whole job, and there is a need for specialists to create components or blocks for various functions.

“We’re at a phase where our industry is going to mature,” Richard deBoer, chief executive of Galazar Networks Inc., told the 11th Executive Forum on Microelectronics, organized by the Information Technology Association of Canada, at the National Arts Centre Wednesday. DeBoer, whose company makes semiconductor components for networking, said slow growth means the industry needs to become more efficient. That means not duplicating research and development, and that means component manufacturers will have to use more third-party intellectual property, he said.

George Cwynar, president and chief executive of Ottawa-based chip designer Mosaid Technologies Inc., said the chipless model has evolved because of increasingly complex chip designs and pressure to bring products to market faster, especially in the consumer market.

Mosaid, a 30-year-old Ottawa firm that started out designing and manufacturing memory chips, is an example of the trend. Cwynar said it is now an intellectual property company, deriving most of its revenue from licensing its patents to others.

Another Canadian example is Kanata, Ont.-based Elliptic Semiconductor, which designs security and verification technology to be incorporated in systems on a chip.

Brian Piccioni, managing director of high-technology equity research at BMO Nesbitt Burns, said it is becoming too expensive for technology companies to reinvent what others have already done. He pointed to Gartner Group projections that the semiconductor IP business will show a 20 per cent compound annual growth rate through 2008.

Though he sees the chipless approach as the way of the future, DeBoer is not an enthusiastic advocate. He started his remarks in a panel discussion on third-party intellectual property by describing himself as “probably the most negative person about third-party IP out there.” Galazar avoids using third-party IP wherever possible, he said, because of problems the company has seen with adapting others’ designs to its needs. But it cannot entirely avoid doing so, and deBoer said he expects every chip company’s use of third-party IP to grow.

Co-panelist Patrick Boutard agreed. The director of mixed signal development at PMC-Sierra Inc. said his company is “paranoid” about using third-party IP in its chip designs, but is sometimes forced to do so.

What worries these companies is the fact that design components from other companies don’t always work as expected when incorporated into their designs. When that happens, they have to make changes to get the desired results. That takes time and money. “We cannot run the risk of missing a market window,” Boutard said.

“If you sell me bad IP,” said deBoer, “it can cost me $10 to $20 million in damage.”

When there are problems, the outside company often is not quick to fix them, said Ian McWalter, president and chief executive of Gennum Corp., a maker of components for audio, video and communications based in Burlington, Ont.

Despite those issues, speakers said the chipless model is a fairly attractive opportunity for Canadian companies. “You don’t get to be the largest company in the world selling IP,” McWalter said, but “on the other hand, it’s now well established, well entrenched, and people can make a living at it.”

The Canadian Microelectronics Corp., a government-backed organization whose job is to facilitate Canadian microelectronics research, has noticed the increasing importance of the chipless model and is adjusting its strategy accordingly, CMC’s president and chief executive, Brian Barge, told the Ottawa conference.

Canadians now need to get good at integrating the elements of increasingly complex microsystems, Barge said. To that end, CMC has obtained additional funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to increase its research capabilities in “multi-physics implementations” and interfaces, he said.

The rise of the chipless model doesn’t mean other chip-industry business models are dead, though. Savvas Chamberlain, chief executive of Waterloo, Ont.-based DALSA Corp., reminded attendees of that fact in the conference’s closing session. DALSA designs imaging circuits and manufactures them at its Bromont, Que., facility, which also does contract foundry work for other chip companies. Bucking the fabless and chipless trend, DALSA moved away from outsourcing chipmaking because contractors weren’t interested in its small volumes and need for custom facilities, Chamberlain said.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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