Driving leading edge chip design from Europe
There is a company in Europe regularly doing leading edge, large chip designs on 7 and 5nm process technologies. Sondrel in Reading, UK, is the largest chip design house in Europe and aiming to be one of the largest supply chain companies for the custom chip business. It already works with the major foundries, but is now offering support all the way from concept to finished, packaged chips.
“We do design and ASIC supply, focussed on digital designs in newer technologies, principally FinFET. In terms of the history we are 19 years old with design centres in China, India, Morocco and the UK and with a sales and technical support office in the US in Santa Clara,” said Graham Curren, founder and CEO of Sondrel.
“There’s a lot of design services companies in Europe but we are bigger with over 200 staff and have the capability to do designs. Everything is below 28nm and the vast majority below 16nm and there isn’t really anyone else in Europe with that capability and not many in the world – GUC, Socionext, Faraday Technology and Alchip,” he said.
7nm chip designs
It is starting third leading edge design for a networking chip. The second recently taped out and was over 600 square millimetres in size using a 7 nm process node.
“The chips are designed using our Outsourced Design Consultancy (ODC) service,” said Curren. “We supply a team of design engineers that work exclusively for a customer as though they were within that company. This is a very popular working arrangement for our big customers as they know that they are using a team that is experienced at working both together and as an embedded, integrated part of the overall project team. This gives much better results than the alternative of customers using individual design engineers. In addition, each ODC team has access to the whole of the rest of our 200 plus engineers to brainstorm for ideas, additional skills and experience.”
Next: Early stages
The self-funded company started in 2001 and has 18 percent backing from design tool vendor Mentor Graphics, which is now part of Siemens. “Our first customer was in Germany and providing supply chain services was in the business plan but I wanted to do it with a strong offering,” said Curren. “When you are self funded, you are susceptible to having to do what is presented today rather than set your agenda, so it takes longer to get where you want to be. A few years ago we felt we had the supplier relationships to provide a real ASIC supply service. Rather than supplying companies like GUC, we would be becoming a competitor.”
“Today we are still in the early stages, we are not looking at shipping chips yet, we are designing. With a big design win, execution, from concept to architectural design, including architectural studies, all the way through, its an 18 month to 2 year design cycle to prototype and then another year to production. These are big chips, so it takes a lot of time and effort,” he said.
“We are able to ship to TSMC, Samsung, GF as we are on their approved lists. It’s a balancing act – each one has its own strengths, its own markets, and we have to be careful not to go behind someone’s back,” he said. “For example, if we are working with TSMC on a project and suddenly switched to Samsung someone would be upset. We work in an open and trustworthy manner which allows us to be independent. That’s particularly important in EDA and IP. There is a lot of anti-competitive practice in this industry, whether its bundling, discounting or doing favours for people, and there is a line between trust and partnerships and anti-competitiveness.”
The challenge is scale, as most customers deal with the foundries direct, he says.
“If you look at TSMC for example, 95 to 98 percent of their business is done direct. GUC is arguably their biggest supplier at $400m, that’s 1 percent of their business,” he said. “So like all distributors we have to add value – and we have to make margin, so either the foundry sells to us more cheaply or we add value. That’s the design part and the supply chain management.”
“There is definitely a minimum level at which it is sensible to do your own chip and not many companies pass that threshold. From a business point of view it doesn’t often make sense to maintain a chip design team.”
This is part of understanding what the core business is of a company, and some areas of Europe are better at this than others.
“What is the core value of the company? Is it the chip design, software, system understanding, the customer relationship, the brand? A lot of companies get sucked into doing the chip themselves without realising the difference,” he said.
“Israel is better at seeing where they add value, the UK has always been very much ‘do it yourself’, in Germany it varies by industry. As an ASIC supplier we have the expertise and experience to make use the chip works first time and hits the performance requirements.”
The company saw a boost in May 2017 with the acquisition of the ImgWorks design team from Imagination Technologies, a neighbour in the UK.
“When Imagination decided to get rid of parts of the company we discovered they were selling the ASIC part, so we bid for it, the management liked our proposal, they had some contracts that needed finishing, so the team joined us. Its not easy to find a bunch of god engineers and it fitted exactly with what we were doing. They were already working on FinFET designs, multiprocessor, CPU, GPU, complex interfaces so it fitted with our core business. They were 80 people, we had 120 at the time,” he said.
“There’s always been the two hardest things for growth have been cashflow and the ability to hire engineers, and that more so. It continues to be challenge.
“There are clear differences between Europe and Asia for hiring,” he says. “Everyone in Europe is over 40 – in Asia under 40 so when you put them together it works well. You have to address both of those. In Europe we are increasingly hiring graduates. We had successful graduate recruitment in China, some in Morocco and we want to do more there and this year is the first year we have tried to do that in the UK.
Next: Chip design recruitment
“We have recruited five graduates in the UK, with assessments even before and after lockdown. The university programmes tend not to be related to the real world so we are looking at other ways for our 2021 graduate programme,” he said.
In the film, The Imitation Game, potential recruits were found by setting code to be cracked. Hidden in Sondrel’s recruitment brochure about the programme in 2021 is a code, which, if cracked correctly, fast tracks the applicant to the shortlist.
“Last year, we had over 150 applicants so cracking the code to be shortlisted can really make a difference to their chances. And we’ve not made it easy to find the code because in real life working at Sondrel, they need observation skills as well as analytical skills. A CV won’t show us that, hence the cunning code challenge.
“One of the key things we look for in candidates is their ability to generate ideas and challenge assumptions. Exceptional engineers look at every problem with fresh eyes, understand what the hard limits are, and generate numerous ideas on how to push the boundaries where the limits are not so fixed.”
These graduates will work on leading edge designs for companies around the world.
“We don’t do much large digital chip designs for European customers, the mask costs are huge at 7nm and 5nm which puts people off – 12nm is a lot more manageable,” said Curren. “We have a very broad range of designs from 22nm to 5nm and we have just completed a test device at 5nm, at 6nm and a lot of stuff at 7nm.
“There’s quite a few startups around AI and ADAS automotive, a lot at 12nm and 16nm and fully depleted silicon (FDS). For FDS the drivers are mask related. The power is important but they are not stretching the power and using back bias to get the lower leakage current.”
This means the business is global. “We see lots of prospective customers in China, lots of companies in the US, I guess the market hasn’t changed that much in Europe, its mostly Israel, with systems companies in aerospace and automotive,” he said.
“The real challenges are around the complexity. We think of ourselves as a system integration company – you are not doing that much gate level designs, it’s about the integration of CPU, GPU and interfaces so the problem is different.”
“We taped out an MRAM design with ARM, Samsung and Cadence about a year ago – there has been a lot of take up on that for IoT designs so there is a lot of interest, but MRAM designs tend to be smaller and we are more focussed on larger designs, typically with 30 to 40 people on the team,” he said. “The biggest design we have done was 600mm2 in 7nm for a networking chip but that was very regular. We taped out a 400mm2 design that was very irregular in 16nm with many CPUs and GPUs, that was harder to implement with the network on chip (NOC) [interconnect].
“We have our sights very much set on supplying full supply chain for these complex digital designs and we think there are few people with the technical depth to do that. Nothing is holding us back today,” said Curren. “We are still doing services, both are valuable, some people want one and some want the others. Companies such as GUC and Socionext typically have 5 to 10 times our revenue per head so the way forward is to increase the revenue per head, and the key to that is the technical competence.”
The US China trade-war is just part of the cost of doing business, as are the changes in Europe as the UK leaves the EU.
“China is part of our business and we do need to manage those risks, but it is also a good potential, as it’s a huge market – there’s more new companies that we are talking to about projects, so its not an area to turn your back on,” he said. “We are seeing issues with European funding, for example as a UK company whether we will be able claim French tax credits, so there are barriers to European business as well.”
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