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Shaking up the art of chip design

Bucking tradition, start-up Barcelona Design offers software that automates aspects of analog-circuit design--a process long considered an art form by some engineers.

A California start-up has designs on chipmakers that want to produce cheaper and faster processors for lucrative consumer-electronics devices.

Bucking tradition, start-up Barcelona Design is introducing software that automates aspects of analog-circuit design--a process long considered an art form by some engineers. The Prado Synthesis Platform, unveiled earlier this month, is a set of tools that Barcelona says can slash the time it takes an engineer to design an analog circuit from several months to a few hours.

"It doesn't replace an engineer, but it could allow that engineer to move more quickly on a design...do several circuits at the same time or do more exotic work," said Peter Santos, Barcelona's vice president of marketing.

Some, though, are wary of engineers trying to do too much with a single tool.

"You don't want to become the guy who has a hammer and (then) every problem becomes a nail," said Al Fazio, principal engineer for the process technology group at chipmaker Intel.

Designing analog circuitry is a traditional process that involves trial, error and lots of testing. Because it's so labor-intensive, creating such circuits is very expensive, not to mention time-consuming.

Although the job is arduous--a project often takes three to six months to complete--chipmakers haven't had an alternative. And with the advent and popularity of new consumer-electronics devices such as MP3 and DVD players, demand continues to rise for the analog circuits that make them possible.

Analog circuits, which send, receive and translate data such as audio and video signals, provide a bridge between the signals' physical nature and the digital world of ones and zeros inside a chip. They're also more flexible than digital circuits, which are either on or off, because they can not only start and stop the flow of electricity, but also vary its intensity.

While the economy has put the brakes on the PC and networking-equipment markets, sales of consumer electronics have fared better--a fact that hasn't escaped the notice of heavyweights including IBM, Motorola, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

To date, Barcelona has worked with Mitsubishi Semiconductor, ST Microelectronics and Matsushita. Mitsubishi, for example, has used the software and now has working silicon, Santos said.

Simply press "go"
Barcelona's software, created by Mar Hershenson and Stephen Boyd, two company principals and former Stanford University researchers, consists of two pieces: a kind of software console and a software engine that plugs into it.

The engine contains mathematical equations that show how circuit specifications translate into an electrical design, while the console serves as a user interface that allows an engineer to plug in different specs. The console also permits assembly of the engine's translations into a finished design.

A designer first selects a specific engine, which is tied to a particular chipmaker's manufacturing facility and process. The Prado software provides different engines because chipmakers, although they follow the same general manufacturing principles, diverge on the details, often making subtle changes or using different materials.

The designer then plugs in the necessary requirements for the finished circuit design, including frequency, or clock speed; power consumption; and manufacturing process. Manufacturing might, for example, entail a 0.13- or 0.18-micron process for creating the features on the chip. Shifts in size can affect the size, heat, spead and cost of processors.

Once the desired specifications have been entered, Santos said, the engineer can "press go, and what the system will do is calculate the design that will meet those specifications."

And, Santos said, unlike a design tool that relies on generic templates, Barcelona's Prado program maps out the best circuit design based on the specific information it has about what the engineer wants and on what it knows about the relevant manufacturing process.

Is the secret in the sauce?
Some designers might say that designing an analog circuit is a lot like making a good pasta sauce: Homemade always tastes better, even though canned varieties are arguably cheaper and much faster.

Despite his reservations, however, Intel's Fazio said the creation of new design tools for analog circuits benefits designers by offering more choice.

"We have lots of software tools for analog design," Fazio aid. "Automation is just a piece of those. That type of technology does have its place. You need hammers, but you also must have a drill."

The Barcelona tools don't come cheap. The Newark, Calif.-based company sells a yearly subscription for its Prado software and manufacturing process engines, each of which starts in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a result, each new circuit design costs about $150,000.

However, Santos said, "it's very cheap, considering what it allows you to do."

Costs could be much higher, he said, if a company developed a design from scratch or hired an outside vendor to do the job. And companies using Barcelona's software could break even after just two to four designs, and could bring a chip to market more quickly, he said.

Once an engineer completes a design with Prado, it gets merged into a licensee's system-on-chip product. System-on-chip processors, present in a wide range of devices from set-top boxes to networking equipment, are becoming more popular for use in consumer electronics, communications and networking gear. They can run an entire device, without the need for separate chips, and can thus help cut costs.

So far, Barcelona has only one engine available--for the 0.18-micron phase lock loop or PLL circuitry used by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, one of the most popular contract chip manufacturers. It plans to release first one and then eventually two new additional engines per quarter.

Though many chipmakers use contract manufacturers such as TSMC, many do not. AMD and Intel, for example, design and manufacture almost all of their own chips. Barcelona plans to offer a service for companies such as these--creating a custom circuit-design engine based on a company's own internal manufacturing processes.