Chip Design is not Rocket Science... It's Much More Difficult!

Jul 23, 2022

Exec Talk with Lien, Wee Liang, Director, RF Design Division at MediaTek. This article was first published by the Singapore Semiconductor Industry Association.

Rocket motherboard

The title is one of the chip industry’s inside jokes. I remember smiling wryly when I read this quote from an online Bloomberg article more than a year ago when chip shortages received global attention. This was also the first time my acquaintances asked me if that is what I worked on in MediaTek, and whether there were chips in cars?

Surely, the world of an IC designer is intriguing not only for a common man but also for a potential aspirant evaluating whether to enter this domain. So let us try to delve further and uncover some of the intricacies related to this domain.

Handling Increasing Complexity of Chip Design

The increasing complexity of microchip processes and packaging technologies have helped create some of the most important innovations of mankind. Chip design has also been instrumental in this endeavour, helping realize various ‘Systems-on-Chip’ (SoCs) that are getting more complex every day. In an SoC, circuit blocks of different types must all adapt well to a “digital mainstream” environment that has device characteristics optimized mainly for digital designs, higher packing density and sub-1V supplies. This inevitably leads to analog circuits facing reduced dynamic range and increased circuit noise, causing signal integrity issues and difficulties in meeting performance specifications. Yet, yield must be maximized in spite of power supply and ambient temperature fluctuations. Additionally, RF IC designs are ultra-sensitive to chip parasitics and electromagnetic interference that create frequency spurs affecting performance and causing violation of emission regulations. Overcoming these challenges requires continuous innovations to enable analog/RF circuits to co-exist with digital circuitry for achieving a highly integrated SoC.

How to be a Good Chip Designer?

Chip design skills

A successful chip designer is predominantly an electrical or electronics engineer, with the following attributes:

  • Continuously seeks to improve and innovate: Besides continuing to develop themselves professionally, they are continually searching for ways to further improve circuits in every new generation with better performance at lower power consumption, and costs.
  • Problem solver: Often, chip performance may not match what was simulated during the design phase, and designers are required to find out what caused the deviation. Root cause analysis is thus an essential skill.
  • Meticulous: Paying attention to details and avoiding design mistakes are very crucial because the fix to bugs could cost the company millions of dollars and loss of precious time due to the need of remaking the photolithography masks and re-fabrication.
  • Team player: Due to the complexities involved, a chip is generally designed by a group of engineers, making teamwork critical.

Why Chip Designers Love their Job?

Chip designers seldom do a career switch, here’s why:

  • Apply what you were taught: Design engineers get to apply what was taught in their university days: circuit analysis, system design, digital / analog / RF IC design, device physics etc. In this career, the “dots get connected” and one realizes the practical usage of various theories that were taught in school.
  • The longer you stay, the more valuable you become: Chip making, being an expensive process, is where design mistakes are intolerable. Therefore, experience is well sought after to achieve ‘First Time Success’.
  • Thrill of seeing YOUR final products displayed in stores: Engineers love to see their hard work being displayed as final products that they can show to their loved ones.
  • Technically challenging career: Continuous advancement of semiconductor technologies leads to new design challenges even for the same product line, breaking the monotony that is prevalent in many other jobs.

Chip Design as a Career

Chip design venn

I chanced upon a Venn diagram a long time ago that tried to convince students to take up engineering as a career. The diagram is as illustrated here while substituting the term “Engineer” with “Chip Designer”:

Chip designers do not receive “top dollars” compared to certain other professions. However, the desire to create innovative solutions that enhance everyone’s life gives them job satisfaction that cannot be quantified in monetary terms, providing them a fair mix of the best of “all worlds”.

Chip Design Outlook in Singapore

During the COVID-19 circuit breaker in 2020, semiconductors was listed as one of the “essential services” sector that continued to operate. Fast-forward to 2022, we hear several foundries planning to build advanced facilities in Singapore. This highlights the steady growth of the semiconductor industry in Singapore. This, no doubt, will attract more fabless design companies to set up subsidiaries to complete the ecosystem. The demand for chip designers in this region will ultimately increase.

To conclude, chip designers are the unsung heroes who over the past 50 years have contributed to modernization of computing, communications, transportation, entertainment and healthcare, just to name a few.

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