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Surviving in Semiconductors

Advancing knowledge, remaining relevant are key

By Peggy Albright

In today’s tough economic climate, semiconductor companies must function more efficiently— and that means getting by with fewer employees. The human resource constraints, combined with intense market competition and the need to steadily introduce new computing devices, have put enormous pressure on silicon firms to advance their manufacturing processes and create innovative chipset platforms that will become essential for future consumer products.

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To survive in this intensely competitive atmosphere, computing professionals must work hard to remain relevant and essential. Because the fruits of their labor aren’t directly visible, working in the semiconductor industry can be frustrating even in the best of times. An engineer in the chip business must find career satisfaction in knowing that a technology he’s helped create is hidden under the hood of a valued end product. He must be able to enjoy success vicariously when other individuals and companies build influential commercial products based on the results of his work.

The market separation between the semiconductor professional and the end user can make work in this sector more challenging than others. Typically working ahead of the market, a semiconductor specialist may be uncertain whether the work at hand is going in the right direction. He must be creative and innovative to excel in this context, whether he’s anticipating the physics breakthrough to achieve the next manufacturing process node, designing semiconductor products for component devices, laying out the chips a manufacturer will need to create the next iPhone or flat-panel TV, or developing software that will run on a chipset platform.

So what’s the secret to success, given all these challenges? According to leading semiconductor companies, AMD, Intel, and Xilinx, it all comes down to basics. Continually advancing your skills, understanding how your work relates to other components and the larger ecosystem, and really understanding customers—both existing and future—are all tremendously important.

AMD: Nurturing interdisciplinary engineers

One trend that has come about as a result of new lean, competitive business environment is the rise of the interdisciplinary engineer. While an engineer may have gone through school and their initial career with a single emphasis, semiconductor professionals today must have a diversity of skills. To give just one example, a computer architect might need expertise in performance analysis, and a digital circuit designer might need a strong understanding of digital logic.

“I’ve seen this extensively in the last five years. Companies are looking both to hire and train engineers who can work beyond the single discipline and combine two to three disciplines,” said Alan Lee, corporate vice president of research and advanced development at AMD.

Companies need interdisciplinary engineers due to staffing constraints and also because it takes cross-functional skills to work with today’s complicated silicon technologies. Systems-on-a-chip and the integration of differing processors like CPUs and GPUs on a single die, which AMD is pursuing, are becoming more pervasive. The trend is forcing engineers who previously worked in one of these technologies to move beyond their original focus to understand the other. They might also need to understand programming environments and software tools, such as those based on Open CL, which are used to write applications that can work with cross-platform processors.

Lee says that AMD has updated its mentorship, rotation, and adjunct training programs to help computing professionals gain the interdisciplinary skills they need. Such programs are common in semiconductor firms.

As the leader of the company’s R&D efforts, Lee is particularly interested in motivating engineers to develop a forward-looking bent, to become curious about how consumers will engage with devices in the future. From a research perspective, engineers who think and innovate this way will help AMD develop more meaningful products make AMD a better company, he believes. Pushing the envelope is not just essential to AMD, but to everyone, he says.

“It is important for all engineers, especially in this fast-moving field, to be reading constantly, asking questions constantly, and focusing on bringing in new knowledge and new information,” he said. “Hiring those people and fostering an environment where they can pursue these endeavors will make any company and any individual more successful.”

Intel: Purpose-built devices

One of the market trends intriguing Intel today is the emphasis on purpose-built devices and applications that will let consumers connect consumer electronics devices to the Internet. As more products emerge with device-specific applications, engineers must pay attention to the use models, form factors, and power consumption expected for the hardware and software products they’re working on, said Clay Davis, operations manager at Intel.

Intel has thousands of engineers trying to understand the manufacturing and design implications of these emerging form factors and usage scenarios. For example, the assumption that the growing universe of devices will connect to each other requires Intel’s hardware product teams to address emerging firmware and driver needs. At the same time, the company is looking to its traditional programmer community to develop applications for its processors and platforms that will help the company push into these new markets.

Intel has numerous programs and forums available to help engineers and developers understand how it intends to serve new markets and the types of applications, performance versus power and other characteristics that will be offered by its various and forthcoming processor products.

Even so, Davis urges computing professionals to keep an eye on big trends and what these will mean for product design and development. Too often, he said, design personnel do not understand the end applications that are envisioned for a product line, and this makes it harder for the engineer to help out on a product.

Because of this, the company encourages engineers to work with product planners who are focused on market needs several years into the future. In this way, the engineers can build an understanding of how end customers might use applications based on the technology they are developing.

“It’s very powerful if an engineer can see that,” he said.

Xilinx: Innovating with FPGAs

Field-programmable gate array (FPGA) vendor Xilinx, whose programmable platforms are used for both commercial products and prototypes, is another semiconductor company that is constantly trying to anticipate market trends.

Whether advancing new processing nodes or developing new semiconductor products, professionals in this industry are continuously challenged to stay a step ahead of the customers, “because the time to build a semiconductor is a lot longer than the time to build a product,” said Brent Przybus, director of platforms solutions group at Xilinx.

While those experimenting with new manufacturing processes must follow scientific methods to break new ground, those working at the component and chipset levels need to develop expertise in new layout, simulation, and other tools that come along as new process nodes are introduced. Przybus recommends that IEEE members look to IEEE peer groups and engineering resources to learn about new approaches and techniques.

The IEEE’s standards development efforts give members a direct opportunity to help shape emerging trends. Przybus urges members to stay involved in standards development, particularly in the definitions stage of new standards. Any IEEE member can participate in these activities. “That’s a great way to stay abreast and on the cutting edge,” he said.

Like AMD’s Lee and Intel’s Davis, Przybus urges engineers to understand how their work fits into the larger technology and business environment. System architects and engineers who are building end products, for example, need to spend time understanding the fundamental semiconductor device that their products run on. And those who specialize in semiconductors should spend some time working as a consumer of their products.

“If I were to give any engineers my perspective, I would say spend time on both sides of the fence, because there’s invaluable knowledge you’ll gain,” Przybus said. CW (2 August, 2010)

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