Chip design, talent and opportunities

The next time you admire the latest functions on your cell phone, laptops, or play station or stare in awe at complex medical and manufacturing computers, remember that these devices are run by a tiny silicon wafer commonly called a chip. Chip designers the world over work to make faster, cheaper, and more innovative chips that can automate part of the entire function of electronic devices.

It is now globally recognized that India has built core competence in chip design. Today 19 of the top 25 semiconductor companies in the world have Indian operations, and there are more than 200 Indian small and large semiconductor companies.

In addition to the obvious benefits of joining the global chip design force, an interesting option is the opportunity for a budding chip designer to come up with innovations for the existing medical, automotive and engineering companies. In fact, the trend of small high end design boutiques focusing on one area in chip design might become common place in India.

The Indian semiconductor and embedded designs service market is expected to cross $7.37 billion in 2008. To achieve this phase of growth the industry needs to focus on availability of quality manpower and focus on value creation through innovation. With the growing expertise and capabilities in complex end to end design strong IP development and increasing talent pool, India’s growth is nearly 22 per cent, which is three times, the global growth rate. The domestic market is also one of the fastest growing, in Asia as well as globally.

Far from being monotonous, chip design is a very challenging job. This is how IC design teams actually work across the globe; they struggle for chip power efficiency and performance, wrestle with the ever changing semiconductor processes and design methodologies and cope with the challenges of global design teams. To top that, they have architecture, IP, design and verification into a successful tape out.
Once the architecture team designs the chips, the logic design team then implements the defined design in a high level language. The two popular languages being used today are Verilog and VHDL. With the new paradigm of System on Chips designs, System C and system Verilog are being used for top level design. Engineers write the code with these languages.

The circuit design team synthesis the logic description into a circuit and the physical design team details the layout of the chip. This is followed by the testing and verification in a very elaborate process. Typically, for every two designs engineers there are five verification engineers. Seventy per cent of all the engineers in the industry today are verification engineers, and designing a chip is a job entrusted only to experienced professionals. Typically freshers are entrusted with the job of testing. At all stages, the design is fine tuned to come up with chips with the following attributes – low power consumption, less noise area usage and higher efficiency and also for testability speed and yield. Seemingly small factors as a laptop going into sleep mode when you leave it idle for five minutes, is a major decision taken when the design is being ideated upon.

There are a few hitches though. Today, Indian engineering colleges train a few hundred very large system integration (VLSI) engineers every year, while the actual requirements is in thousands. A master’s in VLSI is generally done as a PG Program after an MTech in Electrical Engineering or Computing Moreover, the lack of awareness of chip design opportunities makes even potential chip design candidates go into software programming.

To train manpower in the area of VLSI design and related software at the BE /BTech/MTech and PhD levels, the Department of Electrics (DoE), Government of India is developing manpower and teaching abilities at various institutes in the country using the expertise available in places like the IITs and IISc. Despite these efforts, there is a basic lack of awareness and chip design does not attract enough of the innovative resourceful talent needed by the industry. The larger student body does not understand the semi conductor industry or its sphere of influence in the world, given how young the industry is in India. Even in the West, the best schools are all centered in Silicon Valley or Austin or Boston. Courses in VSLI design and micro electronics are offered in seal education institutions in the country as MTech and ME programs. For all the PG programs a valid GATE score in the required discipline (electronics/electronics and communication/ electrical engineering). Students need to spend a number of years on a learning curve in this capital intensive industry. As there is heavy investment early on in training, initial salaries tend to be lesser than those in software industry, but in two to three years they easily surpass and often double software salaries. The total workforce employed in the semi conductor industry in India is estimated at 130,000 today, mostly covering jobs in embedded software, VLSI design and hardware.