Everything in life happens on the order of 1 percent, give or take. Pick anything you can think of and I'll bet that at least 1 percent of the world is experiencing it at this moment. Even in the case of analog design: Does an analog designer really believe their circuit design requirements are so unique that no acceptable alternative exists?
The truth is no one (or no design) on the planet is so unique that they are alone in their uniqueness. The six particle physicists — including the lucky one named Higgs — who in 1964 simultaneously postulated how particles acquire mass, know this all too well.
Having participated in the design of analog circuits for over 30 years with design teams on every continent except Antarctica, I have a hard time accepting a claim that only one acceptable design exists for any analog circuit application. There are a lot of smart analog engineers, all working with the same analog ICs and all solving pretty much the same set of problems. Maybe it's time to start knowledge sharing at the analog system level, so that analog IC companies can provide solutions everyone needs — rather than having them guess what they think everyone will buy.
Let's consider the example of low noise amplifier design. For the moment, forget whether it is RF low noise or sensor low noise.
To apply my 1 percent theory, I used Google Ad Words to check the number of times anyone searched the phrase “low noise amplifier design”. The answer is 880 times per month. With less than 10 percent of the world speaking English as a native language, the real number of people searching is probably at least another factor of two. And then the expert analog types probably don't search for things they already know how to do, so we need to add yet another factor. Summarily, I'm going to go out on a limb here and claim that there are probably 20,000 or more people per year contemplating the design of a low noise amplifier circuit.
Further applying my 1 percent theory means that about 200 of the 20,000 engineers are researching exactly the same type of low noise amplifier design — say, sensor low noise — within six months of each other. And another 100 are perhaps researching 5GHz RF low noise amplifier design. And so on.
We could even go 1 percent further yet and say that two of those 200 people are feverishly drafting a patent application right now to protect the same circuit design they independently believe embodies a unique level of genius not seen since Einstein — who, interestingly, was searched 73 million times over the last year; about 1 percent of the 7 billion people on the planet.
Okay. So what's my point?
Simply that it makes no sense for the analog industry to continue down a path of reinventing the same, new, analog “wheel” 200 times per year using different subsets of the same 250,000+ unique analog ICs available. Especially considering that the combined volumes of any 200 applications most certainly render a cheaper and better-integrated solution as viable.
Now, before anyone starts accusing me of leading a chorus of “Kumbaya”, let me share an interesting transition I see going on in the world of integrated analog using a couple of examples.
For awhile now, Apple Computer has been actively recruiting analog IC designers to join their company, who, upon starting, will never design another IC again. Rather, they are hired to architect the IC system design that is then handed down to what most would call an analog IC standard product company, but in effect they are an IC service bureau: hired transistor-pushers.
And then there is China, once the bastion of assembly for all things 2 cents or less. Not true anymore. They don't want to fool around anymore with external 1 cent transistors and 2 cent op amps. It's too much trouble trying to chase down manufacturers competing for volume with other OEMs while waving a measly $10,000 purchase order.
The future of analog design is not an FPAA or a metal-programmed component array or some reconfigurable analog IC. Those ideas have been languishing around for decades. Manufacturers are moving from amplifiers and LDOs to systems. And the race is to find who has the best system level-defined ICs in their portfolio.
The time has come for PCB analog designers to start thinking in terms of an IC system. Architect the optimum IC system solution, patent that system, and then go get the hired transistor-pushers to execute your vision. Even if your volume is low, put together the business case to show how the worldwide usage is much larger. Offer to share your system knowledge for a price break and first adopter strategy as leverage against the other adopters in the world. You get the best all around: a fully integrated and optimized analog IC system with a significant price advantage and you're out there first. And you still had lots of fun.