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Low Power Design Reverses Outsourcing Trend

Designing low-power products requires a greatly customized design which, in turn, requires a great deal of in-house engineering talent and less sharing with external suppliers.

More semiconductor companies are realizing that building products (chips-packages-boards) that consume less power is a market differentiator. But designing low power products isn’t easy. It requires a level of customization that – judging from current business trends – is not feasible in today’s outsourcing model.

One example is Apple’s recent strategy shift away from outsourcing to favoring the cultivation of in-house talent. According to a Wall Street Journal article, Apple has been hiring engineers to design -  really, customize – their multicore cell phone chips. By increasing their in-house design expertise rather than outsourcing it overseas, Apple hopes to create exclusive features through highly customized chip and board sets.

Apple’s strategy shift exemplifies the growing importance of customization.  Low power design requires a high degree of customization in order to meet ever shrinking power budgets that are married with ever increasing product feature sets. In this way, low power design is much like analog-RF design. Another similarity between the two is that customization is not confined to merely chip design. Rather, customization must occur across all levels of product design, including all life cycle phases as well as between domains – from chip to package to board to module to subsystem to final product.

In addition to building up in-house expertise, Apple has made other signs that support the goal of customization. Last April’08, Apple acquired PA Semi,  a key element to controlling power design for the iPhone. Another sign is Apple’s recent hire of the ADMs graphic division CTO, Raja Koduri. All of these trends mean that Apple will be capable of customizing the power, graphics and other key chips in a way that few competitors can match.

These moves toward increased customization capabilities have been mirrored by others in the industry. For example, Intel is pushing hard with its Atom low power embedded processor and recent ventures into the graphics world. ARM, certainly the low power leader in the cellular market, now offer a low power embedded processor for the growing nettop market. Even nVidia, a traditional graphic chip company, is considering building low power products around the x86 architecture.

Customization is a cyclical process (see Makimoto’s Wave). For low-power, it’s not enough to design low power chips. Companies must design low-power process across a number of domains. While not all EDA or semiconductor vendors realize this trend, many do [Chip Designers Scramble For Low-Power Solutions]

Companies that do not will be left “running out of power.”

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