Chip design as a career option? Yes, we are talking about building the hearts of almost all the devices that surround us. In IT-parlance, the chip is the wafer thin slice of silicon that forms the base for an integrated circuit.
Producing it isn’t all that simple. In fact, it is a highly complex task that can broadly be divided into three phases: design, fabrication and assembly. The return is to watch the world around you use your product to run its life.
Gartner estimates that the market will grow by 26 percent in 2008, year-on-year. Between 2007 and 2012, we except the third-party chip design services market in India to grow at a CAGR of about 22.3 percent, to reach nearly $830 million by 2012.
How do I progress faster in this profession?
Constant improvement of skills and knowledge is a must as the design tools and processes keep evolving.
What is it?
The chip design phase involves detailing the physical circuit that can implement a particular application on a piece of silicon. The physical circuit would integrate billions of transistors to achieve an application that would suit a particular requirement, such as microprocessor, router or cell phone.
Fabrication involves creating the physical circuit on silicon, and is akin to manufacturing. Assembly involves wrapping the piece of silicon in a package so that it can be used in an electronic circuit.
Te early stages of chip design saw the emergence of big players (Intel, AMD, et al.) that did everything on their own, from chip design to fabrication. The second phase saw the rise of Taiwanese stand-alone foundries which enabled the integrated companies to outsource their fabrication functions at a lower cost. This separated the capital-intensive fabrication phase from the people-intensive design phase and allowed countries such as India to get into chip design.
Currently, the key players in the semiconductor design industry can be segregated into:
- Fabless firms: These do only design work and don’t undertake actual manufacture of chips.
- Design Service firms: Those who execute specific contracts for big firms in chip design.
- Silicon intellectual property firms: These create IP and then sell it to other firms.
- EDA (Electronic Design Automation) tool vendors: Those who evaluate designs for manufacturing readiness.
Why is it needed?
The design and manufacture of faster and smaller semiconductors means that they can be used in different applications, thus driving growth of the industry. From being used in mainframe computers in 1970s to PCs in the 1980s to mobile handsets in the 1990s and in consumer electronics at present, the industry has always found a new driver for growth.
The ongoing recession has hit the electronics sector, which, in turn, has taken its toll on semiconductor sales – it is projected that the next generation of application growth will drive from as diverse fields as renewable energy, electric vehicles, healthcare, and so on.
As innovations take place, there will be a need for people who can innovate even further. That is also where specialized chip designers will be preferred over software engineers.
The growth story
India, with its abundant engineering talent and low costs, is an attractive destination, and hence will definitely be an important player in the chip design business.
- A recent ISA-IDC report found that the total chip design market is expected to surpass $7.37 billion in 2008, with a huge chunk of revenues coming from embedded software, followed by VLSI design and hardware/ board design.
- Gartner states that the market for third-party chip design services in India is estimated at about $400 million. Ganesh Ramamoorthy, Principal Research Analyst, Gartner, says, “Gartner estimates that the market will grow by 26 percent in 2008, year-on-year. Between 2007 and 2012, we expect the third party chip design services market in India to grow at a CAGR of about 22.3 percent, to reach nearly $830 million by 2012.”
- Over 125 companies are estimated to be India-involved in various aspects of design. There are the big multinational such as IBM, Intel, Texas Instruments. Then there are the big Indian IT players like Wipro, Infosys and TCS, who have set up engineering design service practices and an every growing number of entrepreneurial firms. All this makes India a hot destination for chip design and creating more job opportunities. The industry is estimated to employ over 1,00,000 people.
What are the related paths that you can pursue?
Chip design career can have the following flavors:
- SOC integration engineer
- IP developer: analogue or digital
- DST design engineer: focusing on testing
- Verification engineer: verify design in simulations
There are two separate cadres:
- Technical cadre: Typically everybody starts on the technical side as individual contributors, i.e. design engineer, senior design engineer and moving up to division head.
- Over time, senior technical people can also assume part of the role of business development – in terms of understanding customer’s needs and suggesting solutions.
- Project manager cadre: Post 6-8 years of experience, designers can move into the project manager role involving management of project, integration and liaison.
Why choose this career?
Rahul Hakhoo, Head, Computer Peripheral Divisions, ST Microelectronics: It was a strange quirk of fate. While I was completing my engineering, one of my professors suggested I do an internship with a chip manufacturing company called Semiconductor Complex Ltd. As students, we had heard about chip design being the ‘next big thing’ and though I was quite at sea about it, I decided to join the unit. The internship led to a full-time job and within the first six months my supervisor asked me to shift to the design division of the company. There was so much to learn there that I ended up spending another six years in the design unit!
What are the required skill sets?
- Basic requirement is a degree in Electronics Communication Engineering. During interviews, firms look for a good sense of engineering with a sound grounding in mathematics, physics and electronics. Knowledge of different languages is not a must.
- A number of courses have come up in design which teach the tools (VHDL, EDA, etc.) and taking them would be a bonus.
- Constant improvement of skills and knowledge is a must as the design tools and processes keep evolving.
What are the future prospects?
Compared to other engineering fields, for example the mechanical industry, the chip industry is more cyclical in nature. If one is making a career decision, one shouldn’t be swayed by the current outlook – the industry has always bounced back from recessionary periods wit renewed avenues for growth.
Currently the industry is looking at alternative energy and MEEMS (Micro Electronics Electromechanical), as used in, for example the Nintendo Wii, as the new growth areas.
Over all there is great potential for chip design. There is a demand for chips in every sector, be it automobiles, consumer electronics or high-end servers. There is a constant need for more chips. Rohit says he doesn’t see a problem for every engineer coming out of the engineering schools wants to make a career in chip design, in getting a job. Companies like Intel, IBM and Cisco have all set up operations in India and are always looking out for fresh talent.
Sample Job Description
- Strong experience and expertise on 802.11 a/b/g protocols.
- Should have worked on solutions around this technology.
- Design and development experience with specific LLC and MAC layer protocols.
- Complete understanding of the overall system, interactions among various modules and blocks in the system.
- Familiarity with test frameworks for these protocols.
- Working experience with standard body forums and communities.
- Should be able to understood the wireless technology landscape, have understanding of current limitations and challenges.
- Need to interact with clients in understanding the requirements and should be able to architect solutions.
- Well versed with 802.16d/e technologies.
- Development experience with MAC layer/ data link layer.
- Awareness to various WiMAX Network Interfaces, their Design and development nuances.
- Interaction with WiMax forums and added advantage.
- Understanding technologies for Multi-Service Networks, Mobility Management Procedures.
- Complete understanding of the overall system, interactions among various modules/blocks in the system.
- Familiarity with Test frameworks for these protocols.
- Working experience with standard body forums and communities.
Required Mind Set
Ability to deal with a level of abstraction: the science and craft of design is evolving and becoming more complex. practitioners need to hone their skills over the years.
Get a kick out of technology: Chips are at the root of a lot of product innovations taking place. Given the amount of effort and time involved in getting to the final product, a person should inherently be in love with technology to keep him going.
Patience: It takes over a year and a half before fresher can start contributing productively to various projects. So don’t lose heart too soon.
Some educational institute to consider
- BITS, Pilani: Post-graduate course in microelectronics
- BIT, Mesra: Dept. of Electronics and Communication Engineering: Post-graduate course in instrumentation and control
Other institutes that offer courses in the VLSI domain
- Bitmapper (Pune): Diploma in VLSI design.
- CDAC Advanced Computing Training School: Diploma in VLSI
- V3Logic (Bangalore): Diploma in VLSI design
- Accel Ltd (Chennai): Post-graduate diploma in VLSI design
- Benns Techonologies (Bangalore): Part-tem / Full-time course in VLSI
- Calorex (Ahmedabad): Course in VLSI ASIC chip design
- Vedant (Chandigarh, Lucknow): Course in front-end and back-end design including Analogue & Mixed Signal design
- Sandeepani (Bangalore, Hyderabad): Post-graduate diploma in VLSI design, corporate training, workshop and seminars, and on-site customized training.