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New thinking needed amid runaway test costs

Posted: 15 Apr 2001 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ate? automated test equipment? test costs? ic testing?

The ATE industry must find ways to use machine intelligence to reduce both the cost of verifying the system quality and the time required to bring products to market, says Bill Bottoms.

Bill Bottoms, founder of Third Millennium Test Solutions
The IC industry affects almost every segment of the world economy. Semiconductor revenue last year exceeded $210 billion, and year-over-year growth was approximately 25 percent. Cost-per-function reductions of more than 25 percent, along with significant productivity increases at every phase of the silicon life cycle, enabled this growth. But we may be in danger of losing that growth engine.

Forecasters say the cost of test will soon exceed fabrication costs. Unless the industry achieves test-cost reductions that rival the reductions in wafer fabrication costs, semiconductor industry growth will drop to approach the 3 percent to 5 percent growth rate of the global economy. Capacity-based demand for semiconductor equipment would then drop to less than 20 percent of its current level, devastating the equipment industry.

Several factors contribute to the test cost problem. First, the ratio of the number of transistors to the number of package pins has increased from 2,500 for a typical microprocessor in 1990 to more than 300,000 today. Second, IC performance is increasing faster than forecast by Moore's law. Third, the number of circuit fabric types in complex ICs has risen from one in 1990 to five today and is forecast to reach 10 by 2004.

It is not clear who will make vital investments in technology in the future, but the automated test equipment (ATE) industry cannot wait for someone else to do it. We must make the investments now to ensure the continued high growth of semiconductor markets and, thereby, expansion of the equipment industry.

Embedded test cannot test all parts of a system. Conventional, multimillion-dollar SoC machines are too expensive. And making incremental improvements in conventional ATE architecture will definitely not work. New solutions are required. The key lies in using the products we help produce.

The world is using lower-cost machine intelligence to achieve what was once thought to be impossible. We must find ways to use machine intelligence to reduce both the cost of verifying the system quality and the time required to bring products to market.

Fifteen years ago, a cellphone weighed over a kilogram, occupied 400cm? and had a battery life of 30 minutes; ATE device weighed 700kg, occupied 1m? and required 15kW of power. Today, a cellphone weighs 100g, occupies less than 33cm? and provides 2.5 hours of talk time, but we have not achieved similar improvements in ATE.

The ATE industry has access to the same resources as the wireless communications industry. We must produce a similar result.

About the author
Bill Bottoms
is founder of Third Millennium Test Solutions and former chairman of Credence Systems Corp.

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