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The inevitable decline of ASICSand the solution

Posted: 18 Nov 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded standard product? asic? fpga? pld? chip design?

QuickLogic's Tom Hart believes that the ASIC industry will decline but will always have a presence, and that FPGAs cannot and will not unseat them because of the limitations of their architecture

Tom Hart is Chairman, President, and CEO of QuickLogic Corp.
The debate over the so-called death of ASICs is raging once again. ASIC vendors claim that they will continue to grow well into the foreseeable future due to lower costs and ever-increasing performance. Programmable logic people assert that the development of higher densities and lower-cost design methodologies combined with flexibility will eventually kill off ASICs, even in volume production.

Both are wrong because they are ignoring important new advances. At the risk of sounding too middle-of-the-road, I believe the ASIC industry will decline steadily but will always have a presence. I also believe FPGAs cannot and will not unseat them in most volume applications because of the severe limits to their underlying architecture. Instead, I see the new breed of chips that meld the best of both ends of the spectrum for a new force that will seize an increasing share of the volume market.

The decline of ASICs is inevitable for several reasons, with future advances in technology at the head of the list. Not too long from now, ASIC companies will be turning out 300mm wafers at a 0.15m process technology. That means a typical batch will yield about 100,000 chips. Consequently, ASIC vendors will have to turn out even larger volumes to make a profit so they will have to reject smaller orders they would have accepted just a few years ago. For example, ASICs would be the ideal solution for Ford Motor Co. if it required a device that added functionality to every one of the 6.9 million cars and trucks it sold worldwide last year. But if Ford needed a chip specific to the 101,000 Jaguars it sold in 2001 it would have to seek a different solution.

At the same time, FPGA manufacturers have attempted to position themselves as the best ASIC alternative. They maintain that their devices have enough gates to meet the demands of customers that are getting squeezed by the ASIC market by enabling customers to quickly program an FPGA using ASIC technology. Unfortunately, they have several things working against them. The leading FPGA vendors dropped plan to turn FPGAs into ASICs for two essential reasons: Technical (difficulty holding timing and large die sizes needed for RAM) and financial (only one in five customers moved into volume production.) In addition, there are serious legal roadblocks to using the Intellectual Property required for FPGA programming when chips are mass produced.

Logically, the best solution is to take the small die size and performance of an ASIC and combine it with the flexibility of programmable logic. That results in a standard product that enables engineers to add specific value to differentiate their products. Fortunately, these products are on line to fill the gap between pure programmable logic devices and high-volume ASICs. These are called embedded standard products--hardwired, high performance, low-power functionality similar to ASICs with a programmable logic fabric for flexibility.

The problem with the current flurry of debate over ASICs vs. alternatives is that too many people are looking at extremes. ASICs are not dead as some say. There will always be a demand for high-volume semiconductors. FPGAs are not the natural successor as they have severe limitations, both technical and financial. One analyst summed it up when he asked if "PLDs are not fast enough and the ASIC guys won't give you the time of day, what do you do?" I would answer that the best of both is available right now.

- Tom Hart

Chairman, President, and CEO

QuickLogic Corp.

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