Custom chip developers supply a wide range of industries
What is it?
An Asic (application-specific integrated circuit) is a chip that is custom designed for a specific application rather than a general-purpose chip such as a microprocessor.
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The use of Asics improves performance over general-purpose CPUs, because they are "hardwired" to do a specific job and do not incur the overhead of fetching and interpreting stored instructions.
Much of the functionality is bought in from libraries of intellectual property, but skilled designers are needed to maximise performance and minimise development timescales and manufacturing costs.
Analyst firm Gartner calls Asics with a lot of re-used intellectual property "Platform Asics", and those that include more new application-specific material "Cell Asics". Cell Asics are far more efficient but take a lot longer to develop, which does not fit well with consumer product lifecycles.
Shorter product lives mean lower volumes sold before a replacement is needed, so designers and manufacturers are under constant pressure to innovate, while getting less return from each design.
On the other hand, new markets for Asics are opening up constantly. For example, Gartner predicts that by 2010, 80% of new vehicles will be fitted with tyre pressure monitoring systems.
Where did it originate?
With VLSI (very large-scale integration) microprocessors in the 1980s. Development times have fallen sharply, from up to two years to a typical design cycle of three to five months.
What is it for?
Asics are found in everything from network infrastructures, PCs, mobile phones and car control systems to set-top boxes, toasters and musical birthday cards.
Increasingly they are designed to be used across a range of devices - providing wireless Lan functionality, for example - rather than a single product. Designers define the application-specific functionality in one of two programming languages: Verilog and VHDL.
These are both open standards, maintained respectively by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and electronics industry association Accellera.
Testing is an important part of the cycle. The industry was blighted a couple of years ago by the high number of Asic designs that revealed flaws only after they had gone into production.
What makes it special?
Asics offer greater efficiencies to the people who commission or buy them because they do only what the application requires. For the same reason, they cost more to develop. The smart money gets into supplying intellectual property to other Asic developers. When the semiconductor industry was struggling a couple of years ago, revenues for semiconductor intellectual property were rising.
How difficult is it to master?
Asics work is easiest for those with an electronics engineering background. You can learn the basics of Verilog or VHDL in an intensive five-day course, but you will need further training in hardware design.
There is a preference for what are called "tall, thin engineers", who can handle functional design, functional verification and physical design, rather than "short, fat" specialists in each of those disciplines.
Where is it used?
All IT, automotive, aerospace and electronics manufacturers design or commission Asics. Some manufacturers, such as IBM, have their own design methodologies and toolsets.
The industry has many small Asic design shops, but there has been a shakeout in the past couple of years, and Gartner also predicts consolidation among the larger semiconductor makers.
Rates of pay
Experienced Asic designers are paid up to £50,000. Recent graduates and juniors can expect £30,000.
Electronics training specialist Esperan offers Verilog, VHDL and Asic design courses.See also the VHDL and Verilog websites.