Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When to Engage an Analog IC Design Consultant

There are many situations in which a product or system development firm might want to seek out and engage an analog integrated circuit (IC) design/development expert for consultation.   IC design is a small niche of the circuit design field itself, and analog IC design is in turn a tiny niche within that niche.  Strong, highly experienced analog IC design experts are relatively rare, in particular ones that are not tied in exclusively to one company as an employee.  But independent experts do exist and are quite willing and able to perform consulting services on an ad-hoc basis for those in need. 
It may seem at first glance to be more cost effective to have someone on staff with this type of expertise.  In reality, hiring (and keeping) someone on staff with expertise in analog IC design and development is rarely necessary or desirable in a typical product or system development company.  In fact, unless there is a significant baseline of analog IC design work being done in a given organization it does not make any sense whatsoever to try to develop this type of expertise in house.  The only way to justify doing so would be to envision a steady and growing stream (critical mass) of analog IC design work – enough to grow a group within the organization - and that is not typical in most companies that are not themselves focusing on the development and sale of analog IC devices (chips).   

That being said, in most electronic product development companies there are occasionally projects that come up where the need for an expert in analog IC design is critical, and this is where obtaining expert consulting services is the most effective solution.  Some examples of these situations are:

  •  A custom analog IC design is needed for a new product for cost or performance reasons
  • An obsolete IC in an existing product needs to be sourced or replicated
  • For cost or performance reasons the potential options for integrating  some or all of the circuitry in a product must be evaluated
  • Low  yields, poor performance or other technical concerns with existing IC devices used in a product need to be investigated and rectified
  • Assistance/advice is needed in identifying and evaluating potential foundry, assembly and test vendors for an IC
  • The possibility of generating a new spin of an existing IC for derivative products needs to be evaluated

The specific tasks and expertise that would justify the use of an expert analog IC design consultant are similar in all of these scenarios.   Some of the critical areas of expertise needed include:

  • Detailed generation and/or review of technical specifications for an analog IC
  • Evaluation of semiconductor processes - not only in technical but in economic terms
  • Working successfully with missing or incomplete device modeling information
  • Ability to evaluate existing ICs at the transistor level including understanding process and tracing circuitry
  • Design and schematic capture of existing and new devices and simulation of critical performance specifications
  • Evaluation and recommendation of fabrication, prototyping, assembly and production test options
  • Prototype evaluation/characterization and validation
  • Development of reference designs and application notes

In any situation, the analog IC design consultant must work closely with the rest of the product development team in order to come up with the optimal solution.  Excellent communication skills are paramount.  Independent design consultants are accustomed to this way of working and are generally very flexible in adapting to a customer’s standard processes and procedures while executing tasks that are not necessarily spelled out to the last detail.  In the best case, the analog IC design consultant will manage the IC-related tasks while interfacing closely with the customer’s Program Manager to insure a close and effective relationship.

Analog IC design is a highly specialized niche within the field of engineering, making it a difficult specialty to develop and maintain in the typical product development organization.  At the same time, in many development projects the need for this expertise is critical.  The use of a qualified analog IC design consultant in these situations can make the difference between success and failure.

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