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Design test offers Asian fabless competitive edge

Posted: 16 Sep 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ate? fabless company? intellectual property? ip core? database?

The fabless model for developing semiconductors is well adopted in Asia. Already, there are over 200 fabless design start-ups in mainland China and this number is expected to grow sharply over the next few years. The trend toward outsourcing of silicon fabrication is also spreading to other developing Asian nations. Even some Japanese corporations - which for decades were deeply committed to the vertically-integrated business model - have begun planning to move their semiconductor manufacturing and test processes overseas, to lower-cost facilities.

Asian fabless startups have an opportunity to implement the most advanced methodologies available today, taking advantage of the lessons learned by their Western counterparts over the past few years. One key lesson is the value of test development and test-program debug before silicon. This process gives fabless design houses more control over the hand-off to manufacturing, and can reduce time to revenue by 15 to 40 percent.

The Semiconductor Industry Association notes that "Analysts for the semiconductor industry estimate that test development and debug require one-third to one-half of the total time expended in IC development." With in-house co-development of ATE test patterns, test programs and timing, a fabless company can cut time-to-production by at least one month - the value of which is clear. When the fabless house adds to this a 10 percent improvement in process efficiency, the ability to eliminate silicon revisions and the value of active risk reduction, the argument for controlling the test-development process in-house becomes even more compelling.

Moving from 'old school'

Despite these advantages, many design houses still employ an older design-to-production test flow, in which a product or design is developed with little interaction with the test department or test vendor. The finished design is then thrown over the wall to the production test department. While this may have worked adequately with an earlier generation of semiconductors, today's advanced ICs integrate many diverse and highly complex IP cores. Test-development teams must be able to consolidate test patterns and timing from multiple sources into a flexible, unified test program. Without the design engineers' knowledge or context for the various tests, it is extremely difficult to develop a test program that will meet all the goals for fault coverage, test time, and cost.

Engineers and managers at fabless houses have the most information about their designs. When they outsource test development, they risk loss of information that can mean a slower time to production, cost overruns, quality compromises, or production re-spins. Adopting a comprehensive design-to-production test strategy gives the fabless house the ability to control these risks. By developing test programs in house - and by employing other workstation-based methods, such as silicon virtual test - they can be confident that the test process will present no barrier to success and can ensure that manufactured silicon meets design specifications and reliability as well as performance goals.

By understanding test requirements and ATE options early in the design process, a fabless company can establish development objectives toward a particular tester that fits specific functional needs or represents the lowest overall cost. When the fabless house provides a test vendor or foundry with its own test parameters - functional and structural, voltages, and more - and is able to specify the tester, the fabless house is an equal partner with the test vendor.

When the test-development software is also capable of re-targeting existing test programs for a new test platform automatically, the fabless company is not tied to a tester that may not be available right away or has proven inadequate to the task. The fabless company can now be intelligently involved with the choice of test platform.

When engineering management chooses to make design modifications during development or for a subsequent project, test programs that were created in a unified test database can be easily re-purposed, saving months toward time to volume.

In conclusion, by implementing a comprehensive design-to-production test strategy from design inception, Asian fabless semiconductor companies will benefit from faster time-to-market and higher test quality, at a lower overall test cost. These are competitive advantages that will leapfrog Asia's burgeoning semiconductor industry into the international market.

- Roger Ball

GM Design and Test Software

Integrated Measurement Systems Inc.

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