“Over these few last years, we have seen a tremendous change in the market for application-specific chips,” says Steve Beckers, general manager of imec IClink. “Since 2010, a growing number of SMEs and startups want to develop new application specific IC (ASIC) solutions. But they do not always get the attention of the large foundries whose business focus is on the latest technologies for a select group of high volume customers. That is why we have decided to forge the necessary link, to refocus imec services into a one-stop intermediary between the customers and the suppliers in the IC value chain. So today we proudly present you imec IC-link.”
A growing gap between ASIC customers and technology suppliers
With 20nm chips in production and 14nm in the works, the industry is looking at ever more powerful, but also more complex and costly developments. Chips in the latest technologies have up to a billion transistors. They need many more process steps and more expensive tools to produce.
“This has pretty dramatic consequences for the ASICs market,” says Steve Beckers. “With growing complexity, the foundries can only support a smaller number of designs. So more and more, they work with a select number of large companies who have access to the global consumer and communications markets.
That and the rising cost make it near impossible for smaller entrants in the market to get their ASICs produced in the latest technologies. So what these customers need is someone who can open the doors to the foundries for them, who can pool many designs and do the necessary quality checks.”
New markets with more applications in lower volumes
As a second, opposing trend, there is a shift to new applications, requiring ASIC solutions that don’t necessarily call for the high volumes of traditional computing, mobile, telecom, and consumer applications.
These new applications are in the domains of life sciences and medical diagnosis, automotive, security, industrial, and the Internet Of Things. Although these markets are rapidly growing, they are much more segmented and thus need specialized lower-volume ASICs.
Steve Beckers: “The companies in these markets don’t necessarily look for ASIC solutions for speed and cost. In many instances, they are looking to protect their IP in a closed chip. There is not always the need for the latest technology. Even a solution in 0.18 micrometer technology is sufficiently powerful for many of these applications.
So if someone steps up with the expertise to help these companies choose the right technology and select the right suppliers, most of these ASICs could be produced at a very reasonable complexity and cost.”
New entrants in the ASIC market, many more coming
There was a tremendous growth of IC companies in 90s. But between 2001 and 2010 the growth was sluggish at best.
“We now see this changing, all over the world,” says Steve Beckers. “There are many new entrants in the field, new startups and SMEs, looking for ASIC solutions. Or even established companies that are now interested in developing ASIC technology.
These companies know the markets that they are in, they have great application knowledge, but they have little knowledge of the process of designing, prototyping, fabricating, and testing an ASIC. If they could have access to a single point of contact that pools this expertise, potentially many more companies would jump the water and start designing ASIC solutions.”
Linking innovators and entrepreneurs to the leaders in IC technology: imec IC-link
Imec has close relations with both ASIC customers and suppliers. We have seen these trends develop. And we have listened to innovators and entrepreneurs expressing their need for a better link with IC suppliers.
Steve Beckers: “That is why we have decided to focus our services department to form that link as best we can. We want to support innovators and entrepreneurs across the entire IC technology chain. We are committed to turning their ideas into reality. Making great products for them, on time, within cost, and according to specification. And to underline that ambition, we’ve also entered the idea of a link in our new name: imec IC-link.
The first reactions of our customers to our new focus and name have been enthusiastic. I like to think that is also because they are satisfied with the way we help them and have helped them in past years.”
Through the years, imec’s experts have successfully completed hundreds of projects connecting customers with IC suppliers along the complete value chain. They have provided foundry access to over 300 SMEs and 700 research institutes (through Europractice service). And they currently do around 500 design tape-outs per year.
Steve Beckers: “So we have a large and active distribution network. We measure the satisfaction of our customers by the rate at which they return to us with new projects and plans, and by the number of new customers that they refer to us. By that measure, we have a very satisfied customer base, that we now hope to extend and serve even better.”
What our customers typically need
Steve Beckers: “Our customers are looking for a trusted single point-of-contact, an advisor with competence in those aspects of the IC chain that they do not master.”
To deliver its services, imec IC-link has a dedicated staff of 60 engineers. With 30 years of continuous services, it has probably the most experienced team around. That allows them offer solutions for all aspects of ASIC production, from idea to market. But, says Steve Beckers: “We do give our customers complete freedom: they choose whatever bundle of services they need. We don’t lock them into an all-or-nothing model.”
Some of the most asked-for services of imec IC-link are advice with the selection of technology, access to leading IP, low-cost prototyping, access to leading-edge technology at affordable cost, assembly, test and certification services, and PCB/PBA expertise.
“This list is by no means complete,” says Steve Beckers. “So I welcome you to come and discuss your idea and see how we can help. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org”.