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Retired industry pioneer muses on IC trends

Posted: 01 Feb 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:C trends? EDA? nanotechnology? ASIC? LSI Logic?

Corrigan: We've been saying that Moore's Law is going to end for 20 years, but we always find ways to stay on the path.

"Last of the Pioneers" is another title you could apply to Wilf Corrigan, who is also known as the epitaxy innovator, ASIC champion and SIA founder. Coupled with last year's top-level changes at Intel, Corrigan's withdrawal from the day-to-day running of LSI seemed to complete a changing of the guard.

It is not that surprising that Corrigan should be the last of the firsthe was also one of the most precocious. After spells at Transitron in Boston and then Motorola, where he was on the epitaxy breakthrough team, he joined Fairchild Semiconductor and became CEO of its parent company, Fairchild Camera & Instrument, at only 30.

Bureaucracy was another reason for Corrigan to be not entirely disappointed to quit the front line. He admitted that he was frustrated with governance requirements on public companies. He believed that these requirements left little time for actually managing the companies. Thus, Corrigan planned an active retirement, working with private startups through a family-investment vehicle, Rockpoint Capital.

"We're going into a lot of early-stage companies in nanotechnology," said Corrigan. "We're at a point where it's potentially pervasive that you still want to know how things will move on, so you take a number of positions. But I am obviously interested in what nanotech can do as an extrapolation of semiconductor technology."

He also said that "LSI has been doing a fair amount of work with a couple of nano companies," which are looking at blending carbon nanotube technology with conventional CMOS. "If you want to do big blocks of very dense ROM, it looks like that will work. And ultimately, you would like to use the technology to make transistors that have 100 times the density we're seeing now."

Corrigan is also fascinated by China, where LSI has a strong client baseparticularly because of its DVD and HDTV siliconand where he is personally involved in a joint venture. To this end, he sought an alternative view on the country's development.

Corrigan has typically strong views on how he sees business development. On a broad level, he is dismissive about the forecasted demise of Moore's Law. "We've been saying it's going to end for 20 years, but we always find ways to stay on the path. However, for the economics, what has changed is manufacturing."

He is phlegmatic about forecasts of the ASIC's decline, citing Makimoto's Wave, which is a concept by Sony's Tsugio Makimoto. It defines a 10-year period during which the market switches from custom to standard products and back again. "Philosophically, Makimoto was right," Corrigan said, "But I'd refine his idea to say that different segments of the market are at different points at different times. For example, we had the period where peripherals were custom because Intel's position there was weak. But you roll that movie on, and eventually, you have the standard peripherals. The same happened with Winchester disk drivesall these companies wanted to get into the business from the late 1970s, but they couldn't find the supply, so that went custom. But gradually, it became standard again."

Meanwhile, in looking back, perhaps Corrigan's most intriguing perspective comes from how he views the development of LSI Logic. "I hear people say that we created the ASIC business. But we were really an EDA company," he said.

"For a start, there was already a custom business," Corrigan pointed out. "At Fairchild, we did custom work for Burroughs or Honeywell because there was volume. But if anybody else wanted custom, we typically wouldn't because there wasn't the volume. You also had the jobshops, but they didn't really do custom very well. And the big companies had started to push their own semiconductor divisions, but there was the worry that you'd spend all this time on the design and it wouldn't work."

After selling Fairchild to Schlumberger in 1980, Corrigan was looking for a new challenge. "I researched the customer base. They said they didn't want another memory guy and another microprocessor guy, and then there was this 'other stuff, but you wouldn't be interested in it.' And that other stuff was the custom stuff," Corrigan shared.

In fact, he had some technology on the stocks and it is here that the connection to EDA emerges. "We realized that about 10 years earlier, we'd more or less figured out how to automate making chips. We'd done it for the calculator business, but before we used it, standard products came along. Crucially though, we thought through the methodology."

Applying this knowledge to markets such as Winchester disk-drive chips and military projects got the fledgling company on its way.

System engineering
"We could pull together software programs to automate the design," Corrigan shared. "We put together simulators so that the customers could explain what they wanted, and we could effectively reduce it to digital form. We then applied a gate array strategy, and based on that infrastructure, we could give the customer a chip that worked first time.

"The other thing we did was to charge customers a realistic cost to do the R&D and the engineering. Up until then, that had been bundled into the final chip cost," Corrigan explained. "So basically, it was an EDA play. At peak, we had the automation so that we could produce two or three designs a day."

"As you get further up the pyramid, you have to provide a lot of other things with the chip," Corrigan advised. "It's mainly software, but you have to spend a huge amount of effort developing other things, mainly system engineering, which is the actual guts of the system. Ultimately, this revolutionizes the end market.

"It's why China companies can show up at the Consumer Electronics Show, and have very competitive product lines with Sony and the rest. Because they buy a chip, and everything is in the chip," he explained. "And a China manufacturer needs virtually no technical staff with that chip and the reference design that goes with it. LSI engineers in China will sit down and tailor the software in a month or two to give a specific look and feel to the device. And that client might have just three engineers in its operation. Now that is a huge shift, and you are seeing it more in the end product than the silicon specifically."

This is another model that Corrigan will ultimately be seen as having helped pioneer. However, one should not be too certain that it will be the last.

- Paul Dempsey
EE Times




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