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Australia ready for ‘disruptive’ change

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The next “disruptive” change in electronics design could allow Australian and NZ engineers to compete directly with their leading-edge counterparts across the globe, says semiconductor industry veteran Rick Marz.

Marz, executive vice president, worldwide strategic marketing, for US-based semiconductor vendor LSI Logic, was in Australia to present a keynote speech at Adelaide’s Technology Futures Conference last month.

According to Marz, the cost of custom ASIC design has escalated to an unsustainable degree, and while FPGAs provide a less expensive alternative, they have significant performance disadvantages in high-end designs. The industry is looking for a viable solution between these extremes.

“[ASIC design] is in danger of [becoming] an oligopoly of very few companies with the financial resources and volume markets,” Marz told Electronics News. “The disruptive change we’re facing is partially due to technology, but mostly to do with economic pressures.”

According to Marz, two or three million gate ASICs today at the 0.13-μm level need a mask set costing US$700,000. Coupled with design time of around 5000 hours for the first iteration the cost could “easily add up to US$3 million in NRE [non-recurring engineering] charges”.

Marz’s company, along with some competitors, notably NEC of Japan, are offering “platform” or “structured” ASICs as an economical alternative to the full-blown devices. (See this issue page 38.)

“Australia’s combination of low cost base but [high-technology infrastructure] make it [a good place] for design work,” notes Marz. “The advent of platform ASICs suits this design base, because it removes the cost constraint of high-level design [allowing Australia to compete].”

According to Marz, platform ASICs offer 70 to 80 percent of the performance of conventional ASICs, but with non-recurring engineering charges of just 10 percent compared with a full ASIC design. “And for many designs that’s acceptable, and far in advance of what an FPGA could do,” he adds.

Many Australian and NZ designers have skills in high-end FPGA design, and are familiar with the toolsets. This makes the move to platform ASICs relatively painless, and allows local engineers to compete with their overseas counterparts on leading-edge products.

“With the introduction of Synplicity and Tera [EDA] tools the [platform ASIC] design looks very user-friendly, especially for the FPGA person,” says Marz. LSI’s products are distributed by Reptechnic . (See this issue page 26 for the full interview with Rick Marz.)

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