CEO Interview: Ian Lankshear, EnSilica
Securing the semiconductor supply chain with ASICs
UK chip designer EnSilica is looking to capitalise on the increasing drive for car makers and large industrial companies to develop their own chips.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of the semiconductor supply chain, and this is driving a renaissance in the custom ASIC business, Ian Lankshear, CEO of EnSilica tells Nick Flaherty during Embedded World 2023.
- GM signs first long term direct chip supply deal
- Ford chip deal with GlobalFoundries shakes up automotive
“In 2016 we made the decision that what we wanted to do was to scale the business by selling chips rather than time,” said Lankshear. “We’ve been through the route of developing IP and licensing. Where you really scale is the fabless ASIC model – we are making custom chips and a lot of those chips will include some of our IP, its about differentiation and knowhow, radar, cryptography, RF, analog IP and if you come to the game with an empty toolbox you are at a disadvantage.”
The world is catching up, both for control over the supply chain and for differentiation. “There is a renaissance in ASICs to differentiate your product,” he said.
The company went public in May last year on the junior AIM marketplace, raising £6m for expansion.
“Our real differentiation is we do RF. We acquired the design teams of Toumaz in Oxford, Jennic in Sheffield and a team from Blu Wireless in Bristol, and we have a team of 25 people in Brazil doing roadtags and NFC.”
- EnSilica to develop satellite terminal chip
- EnSilica looks to acquisitions, expands Bristol design centre
“We are split into two business units, with the RF and comms working in more advanced nodes from 40nm down to 7nm, and the business and sensor business unit working from 130nm down to 28nm. Those mature nodes you have some great features with high voltage, flash memory and microcontrollers, and the tooling costs is less than $200,000.
Ensilica manages the supply chain, working with foundries such as TSMC and GlobalFoundries optimising the production and yield over time and working with test partners for security of supply and quality levels to deliver parts to customers.
The pandemic was a challenge with the changing pressures on the foundry capacity. While Ensilica is a relatively small customer, producing a few million chips a year, that actually helped, says Lankshear. A few wafers could be critical for Ensilica’s customers but almost not be noticed by the larger customers.
“We are an emerging supplier for foundries so we have worked with customers, and when we didn’t get the allocation we took them into the foundry and manged to get full allocation. Our supply chin team has good connections to foundries and packaging companies.
Working in more mature nodes and RF, the upfront NRE costs can go from $1m to $20m between 18 months to 2.5 years to qualify the chip but that leads to a long term revenue stream for industrial and automotive parts.
- EnSilica chassis control ASIC enters mass production
- EnSilica extends its design and supply services for the automotive industry
One of the first chips the company did as an ASIC was for automotive. “In 2018 we did a chassis controller that was ASIL-D AECQ100 qualified – that was a baptism of fire,” said Lankshear. “We built the team and delivered the chip and its in mass production and we are now an approved supplier for three automotive Tier One suppliers.
“In industrial functional safety, we are now a supplier to a large central European OEM and developing a chip for them for a modern PLC with ARM and customer’s own IP, for us it’s a significant win.”
The company continues to grow, with 130 staff around the world and looking to reach 200. “If we see opportunities for design teams which fit with our markets we can take them on,” he said.
“There has been a lot of consolidation in the ASIC market, and some of those suppliers are not so open to ASIC any more, focussing on standard ASSP catalogue parts so we see that as an opportunity. We have some chips that are the basis of an ASSP where we own the IP but we are looking for lead customers who would be interested in their own versions.”