Mixed Signal/Analog

Custom semiconductors: the economical solution

1st September 2017
Lanna Cooper


Darren Hobbs, Director of Marketing and Strategy at S3 Semiconductors talks about how custom semiconductors are an expensive and out-of-reach tech solution has become a statement of past significance. Today, System on Chip (SoC) solutions are in abundance, and companies like S3 Semiconductors make custom silicon not only practicable, but cost effective as well.

The benefits to using custom SoC and Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) designs are plentiful. Saving time and money, and faster ‘to market’ times are just some of their advantages. Integrated system designs reduce Bill Of Materials (BOM), save Printed Circuit Board (PCB) real estate, and offer product developers increased IP security. Custom integrated circuit designs differentiate a smart developer from their competition. It is beginning to look more economical to plan a design with custom ICs in mind.

Custom semiconductors save time and money
Custom Semiconductors by nature are designed with a focus on product functionality. Tailored to your application’s specific requirements, they are the most efficient design choice of all semiconductor solutions. A common roadblock to this solution has been cost.

Today, custom SoC solutions are abundant and more affordable than ever. Consumer products continually push the envelope to more advanced process nodes, freeing up capacity at mature process nodes. This capacity gain allows for more affordable custom semiconductor solutions.

As a solution to increased integration and decreased unit cost, consumer electronics developers are designing more with smaller finfet process nodes such as 16nm and below (moving down from planar process nodes such as28n). As a result of high volume markets moving to smaller geometries, foundries at larger process nodes have been left idle. To fill the gap and to keep fabrication usage at a maximum, foundries are offering depreciated nodes at lower cost.   

Freeing up large process geometry nodes offers a significant advantage for mixed-signal and analogue solutions. In general, these larger multi-discipline systems do not scale well. Using mature process nodes in the 0.18um and 65nm range is suitable without sacrificing performance characteristics.

Working with a company like S3 Semiconductors can significantly reduce NRE (Non-Recurring Engineering costs). With their understanding of the project as a whole system, a custom solution can be realised to reduce production costs. An example of cost savings is the reduction of BOM cost.

Benefits of custom semiconductors
Monetary saving is only one facet of custom semiconductor solutions. Reducing a project’s BOM also pays off in space savings when it comes to PCB designs. More space on the circuit board translates into greater routing efficiencies and, more importantly, product size reduction. Following suit, the elimination of components offers simpler designs that are easier to assemble, simple to test, and more cost effective to produce. The result is better control over the supply chain and faster lead-times.

The quicker-to-market nature of using custom ICs has clear comparative advantages. Hiding IP away in a single IC offers significant protection from competitor emulation or reverse-engineering. Custom IC designs can also offer features that are not achievable using standardised components (signal latency and noise immunity, for example).

The benefits of using custom ICs offer designers a unique competitive edge over those using standardised components.

Challenges of custom semiconductors
While the feasibility of using custom semiconductors at lower volumes is growing, it requires a good network to get the job done. Producing custom ICs at volume requires unique relationships with foundries, strong skill and experience in mixed-signal design, and a real history with low- to medium-volume chip production.

Today’s complex technology almost always has its fair share of mixed-signal circuitry. Whether your industry caters to IIoT, communications, or consumer electronics, mixed-signal designs can be a challenge. Many design houses specialise in either analog or digital design, generally not both. Add to that the additional challenge that can come with low- to medium-volume chip production when working with larger, Tier 1 foundries.

The custom semiconductor solution
S3 Semiconductors can mitigate these challenges. With over 20 years of experience managing production logistics and custom IC design, we can deliver strong custom design solutions through to production from small volumes and beyond. We consider the customers’ needs and design solutions that maximise the advantage of using custom IC integration.

We have the advantage of using the capabilities of some of the world’s biggest semiconductor foundries. Our network expands beyond semiconductor production. We offer world-class quality standards through our design house, silicon production, assembly, and even to testing. We deliver a comprehensive design-production service to our customers.

As BOMs increase and budgets shrink, cost is likely the number one driver for a project. Our processes have saved customers up to 50% or more on BOM. Not mentioning the design and security advantages of custom semiconductors, cost savings is where designing with custom ICs is suitable. In this lower-cost production environment, we make custom semiconductors a real choice.

Given the current changes in the market, paired with S3 Semiconductor’s 20 years of analogue and mixed-signal design, there is a distinct advantage to custom ICs. With us, OEMs gain the benefits of custom IC design as well as access to Tier 1 production facilities.

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