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SoCs wrestle with schedule delays

Posted: 01 May 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:SoC design delay? chip development? semiconductor manufacuring?

No prudent chip company would admit as much to customers, but the unspoken truth in today's complex world of SoC design is that most ICs will neither be developed nor delivered on time.

In fact, 89 percent of IC development projects miss their deadlines, according to Ron Collett, president and CEO at Numetrics Management Systems Inc.

Consulting firm Accenture reports a similar trend, citing a range of schedule delays from as little as 3 percent to as much as 30 percent in IC development. If the IC in question is a lead, first-generation productthat is, a new chip requiring a new designit will typically register an additional 15-30 percent delay in the design schedule, compared with a less-complex second, third, fourth or fifth spin of an existing product, said Scott Grant, senior executive with Accenture's semiconductor business practice.

No customer would knowingly tolerate such delays. Nor could a reputable chip manufacturer intentionally budget such chronic overruns, especially with the cost of IC development skyrocketing. Schedule slips in IC development often result in a semiconductor company's missing an entire product cycle, losing prized design wins and triggering dangerous financial reverses.

Solution in software
Numetrics is providing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software tools designed to calculate chip design complexity, quantify scheduled risk and estimate schedules and staffing requirements. While conventional ERP tools from Oracle, SAP or Siebel are used in managing sales, manufacturing and general and administrative functions in an enterprise, none have existed thus far for semiconductor R&D organizations.

According to Numetrics data, schedule slips for IC development vary, but they average 44 percent.

The reasons managers and designers cite for such delays range from "the intellectual property core was late" and "EDA tools are inadequate" to "a key manager left the organization" and "specs have changed." Collett calls them "the usual suspects" of excuses.

But the crux of the issue is unpredictability.

"You can't predict how challenging new functional-unit blocks in a chip will be and how complex the integration will be," said Grant. "In many of these first-generation products, we have no way, even with historical data, to gauge what the newness factor is."

Taming that unpredictability is where Numetrics hopes to cash in.

Instead of dealing with a variety of individual causes for delays, Numetrics' ERP software aims to look at the big picture. Collett developed the tool suite by leveraging the huge database the company has amassed since 2000 in the course of offering chip vendors services such as benchmarking IC development projects and measuring productivity against competitors.

Collett believes IC development can be modeled as "a stochastic process," if adequate statistical data is available.

Variables introduced in such a process include the technical effects of shrinking die size and yields, a semiconductor R&D team's historical capabilities and tooling, and the impact of ever-expanding development teams that are often geographically far-flung. By pinning down such variables, "we can bring randomness into the model," Collett explained.

Costly delays
Long delays are common in IC development, even among experienced chip vendors with ample engineering resources. For a high-profile example, one need look no further than an erstwhile IPTV chip development partnership launched in 2004 between Microsoft Corp. and STMicroelectronics.

In looking for an innovative one-chip multimedia processor as a single hardware platform on which to develop its IPTV software, Microsoft settled on ST as its primary silicon vendor. But by November 2004, when Microsoft nabbed a $400 million IPTV deal from AT&T (then SBC Communications), ST was experiencing a substantial delay in its promised IC development.

Within weeks, ST lost Microsoft's confidence. It was unseated by Sigma Design Inc., which in early 2005 became Microsoft's primary prototype partnera failure that cost ST dearly. Today, Sigma Design has a 100-percent lock on Microsoft's growing IPTV design sockets.

Enterprise management tools come to the rescue: Guide decision-making process for IC development.

Thomas Wille, senior director of innovation and technology in business line identification at NXP Semiconductors, acknowledged that around the same time, his group was also "having trouble in getting products out." In 2004, the average product delay was as high as 40-50 percent. For the identification group, with an 80 percent market share in government projects such as national ID cards and electronic passports, this across-the-board slippage was unacceptable.

'Resource dilution'
When asked why such slippage happens, Wille said, "First, we tend to underestimate the complexity of a chipespecially when it is a brand-new product. Second, we tend to understaff the project." Particularly if the project runs more than one year, a "resource dilution" begins to take place, he said. "As the project gets prolonged, things happen here and there, people get distracted, they are pulled into different projects to help out others."

Indeed, most semiconductor R&D teams handle multiple IC development projects. "There is usually a portfolio of projects to manage in parallel," said Benoit Calimez, program manager for business line car entertainment solutions at NXP. Taking on a new project is hard enough, he said, but simultaneously sustaining products that are supposed to be phased out but are still hanging fire further complicates project management.

Most chip companies tend to determine the schedule and resource requirements of a new IC project essentially by hunch. "We relied upon experts within the project or sometimes brought in experts from other projects at NXP who were regarded for their competence," said Calimez.

But in complex chip development, aligning the expectations of executive management, marketing and chip architects in the R&D organization is one of the hardest things for an organization to pull off. While the marketing department tends to want everything, executive management often limits resources and the R&D team ends up overcommitting.

Productivity vs. team size: Development productivity equals the industry norm project effort divided by the actual effort expended.

For executives, too
Numetrics believes its ERP tools will help by offering fact-based information. "We'd like to think our tools are not only a friend of engineering teams, but also a friend of executive teams," Collett said.

Numetrics has signed a multimillion-dollar, multiyear corporate-wide agreement with NXP Semiconductors for its ERP offering.

The advantage of using Numetrics tools, said Calimez, is that "you can mix the quantitative data from Numetrics with the internal system's qualitative judgment."

After applying Numetrics' ERP software tools to nearly all of his group's projects, Wille said, "we improved predictability by 90 percent per year. Further, we made a 64 percent reduction in cycle time." Calimez noted that his group at NXP would not approve any project concept without first benchmarking the initial plans with an early project estimate from Numetrics.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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