Choosing a custom IC partner

Swindon Silicon Systems’ director of business development and product engineering, Ross Turnbull, explains what to consider before embarking on an ASIC design project.

For manufacturers looking to gain a technical and commercial edge over their competition, an application specific IC (ASIC) could be the ideal solution. An ASIC is a chip designed specifically for its designated application, offering superior performance and functionality over off-the-shelf solutions.

While an ASIC’s benefits may be well understood, less so is the process of choosing the right ASIC partner. What should businesses consider when searching for a custom IC partner?

The first step is identifying whether the IC designer can deliver a product that meets application requirements. The strength of an ASIC comes from its bespoke design approach, with the chip built to fit customer expectations.

If the designer doesn’t have the expertise to fine-tune performance at such a high level, the resultant chip likely won’t be as successful.

Another consideration is how much of the IC design workflow can be done in- house. Choosing a supplier offering a turnkey ASIC service—including initial specification, development, packaging and test—means the customer has a single point of contact and one person of responsibility overseeing their project. If there are issues, on the customer or design side, communication is simplified. A process managed in-house will likely be more efficient, with quicker production lead times and reduced costs.

An IC designer might be able to deliver one batch of high-quality product on time, but what if one batch isn’t enough? To avoid being left vulnerable, it’s essential to look for a supplier that can deliver long-term. This protects a business from being stuck with an ASIC design and no-one to produce it or, worse, not possessing the IP and having to go through the workflow again.

When thinking about the long-term, obsolescence is an obvious concern. A key benefit of a custom IC over off-the-shelf solutions is obsolescence protection. Production of a standard IC can be halted at any time at the manufacturer’s discretion, but not so with a custom IC.

However, there is still a risk of obsolescence, typically due to the silicon process becoming obsolete. A reputable ASIC designer will take care to design the IC solution using a process that matches the product’s required longevity. In the unlikely event obsolescence does occur, they must be able to work quickly with the customer to find the right solution.

Manufacturers keen to unlock the benefits offered by a custom IC can be tempted to jump headfirst into a project. However, it’s crucial to take time to find the right supplier for the product. Industry experience, in-house capabilities and whether the company can deliver a long-term solution are all key considerations to make before beginning any ASIC design project.