Once you have decided to explore the possibility of developing a custom integrated circuit for your new product, how do you move forward from there? If you do not have in house IC design/development experience or expertise the most straightforward choice is to seek out a consultant or design services firm specializing in custom integrated circuit design and development. In particular when the product is heavy on analog content (i.e. big ‘A’ little ‘d’) this can be the best approach given the specialized knowledge and expertise required in the still-arcane field of analog IC design.
A quick search on Google for ‘custom analog IC design services’ will yield a number of firms both in the search results as well as the associated Adwords advertisements on the page. You will need to investigate these once you have determined and ranked the criteria you intend to base your decision on. These criteria could include:
- Demonstrated experience in the given application space
- Capabilities of the firm
- Flexibility of engagement model
Once you have identified a number of potential candidate firms and reviewed the material on their websites, the next step is to contact them for a preliminary discussion in which you can get a good sense of their capabilities and focus. If you have a preliminary spec or datasheet for your product that can be disclosed without an NDA it would be good to give the firm a chance to review it at this time to provide you with some initial feedback. This first interaction (be it by phone or email) will also give you a gut check on things such as responsiveness, communication style and general interest level in your project. When you have identified one or more firms that you feel comfortable with and have indicated that your project is something they feel comfortable with and have a strong interest in working on, it is time to move on to the next steps.
At this point it is standard operating procedure to initiate a mutual NDA with the firm. This will provide a comfort level on both sides to disclose proprietary details necessary to move the discussion forward. There are many standard NDA forms available online, or your attorney can draft one. In general it makes the most sense for you to provide the NDA since at this point you are the primary discloser. In any event is typical that the larger firm in the transaction will generally provide the boilerplate NDA form to the other. Once executed, a deeper dive into the technical and business related details can ensue. Proprietary documentation can now be exchanged and discussed freely.
Once the services firm has had a chance for their technical staff to review your documentation and requirements, a telecon or face to face meeting between the technical staff of each party is the next step in the process. In this meeting questions and clarifications can be exchanged in order to insure the best possible understanding of the task at hand between the parties. In parallel the program and business managers on both sides can discuss the framework of the working relationship including details such as business model, costs, schedule, program management, formal review process, etc. The end goal is to give the design services firm all the information required in order to provide you with a detailed technical, schedule and cost proposal, and at the same time help crystallize your requirements and priorities.
Now the design services firm will go to work. Developing a detailed technical proposal is typically quite time consuming and represents a significant investment by the firm. There may be ongoing discussions back and forth in order to iron out any remaining questions and details. It is critical given the work involved that the proposal properly address all of your requirements and concerns adequately and to that end good communication in this phase is the key. In general a good proposal will include most or all of the following sections:
- Project Overview
- Development Approach
- Technical Discussion/Tradeoffs
- Detailed Statement of Work
- Schedule Estimate
- IP Considerations
- Other Considerations
A strong and detailed proposal will go a long way to help you make the final decision on whether or not it makes sense to move forward with your project. Additionally, if you entertain proposals from more than one design services firm you can take this opportunity to compare and contrast the proposals and proposed technical approach as well as costs and schedule. If even after everyone’s best efforts the proposal does not meet the project requirements often a second round clarification is called for as it may be that there has been a miscommunication or misunderstanding of relative project priorities in the first round.
In the end the proposal and especially the statement of work will form the guideline and reference for the project once the go-ahead is given, enabling you and the design services firm to be on the same page.
In summary, properly engaging with a design services firm is critical to setting up your project to be successfully executed. These initial phases represent a significant amount of work and communication by both parties but a strong effort in this phase will be a good indicator of how the project itself will proceed.