How To Understand ASIC Design

Ever wondered what kind of chip design or circuits make our everyday gadgets run?  Chances are, every gadget we have contains an ASIC or an application-specific integrated circuit. An ASIC is basically a circuit designed for a specific use rather than a circuit designed for general purposes. For instance, a chip designed to run a laptop is called an ASIC. Modern structured ASICs have many features including memory blocks, 32-bit processors, RAM, Flash, ROM, EEPROM, and other major building blocks. These ASICs are also known as a system-on-a-chip, or a SoC. ASIC engineers come up with SoC designs through hardware description languages (HDLs) like VHDL or Verilog to make chip designs functional.

It used to be that a manufacturer would choose an ASIC design engineer and apply their design using the engineer’s tools. Although third party ASIC design tools could be borrowed, the link was not effective enough for the third party to create the layout and semiconductor process. Most ASIC engineers ended up getting factory specific tools to complete their chip design. Later on, a solution to this problem emerged, and was called the Standard Cell. Every ASIC design engineer could now create chip designs with specific characteristics like capacitance, propagation delay, and inductance. Standard Cell has great electrical performance and high gate density. Several years later, logic synthesis tools enabled the creation of SICs or standard cell integrated circuits, which were then used to produce ASICs.

The benefits of fully custom chip design that the ASICs made available include performance improvements, reduced recurring component costs, and the ability to integrate pre-designed components and analog components on one chip. There are several disadvantages to ASIC design too, including more complex computer-aided designs, increased design time, increased manufacturing time, increased engineering costs, and the need to have more skilled and qualified ASIC engineers on the design team. Since standard cells and modern CAD systems can be used for digital designs at a reasonable performance cost benefit, manufacturers use them widely today. With the use of automatic layout tools, it is possible to manually tweak or optimize any aspect of the chip design.

Another option that is gaining popularity today is the structured ASIC. Structured ASICs have reduced ASIC design cycle time and manufacturing cycle time compared to other ASICs because they make use of pre-defined metal layers and pre-characterized options of the silicon. The logic mask layers are also pre-defined by the ASIC engineer. A structured ASIC design is completed by making custom metal layers that will make custom connections between elements. Structured ASIC is hailed by many engineers as the bridge that will bring together standard cell ASIC chips and gate arrays. What makes structured ASIC design attractive is that it lets common IPs be built into the architecture, saving the ASIC engineer more money and time, compared to designing an IP into a standard cell ASIC.

The following is a list of IDM ASIC manufacturers:

  • Texas Instruments
  • Toshiba
  • Samsung
  • Hitachi
  • Fujitsu
  • On Semiconductors
  • Infineon Technologies
  • Cavium Networks
  • Avago Technologies
  • LSI Corporation

You can find out more about ASIC design by taking courses from an accredited online university.


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