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The state of analog and mixed-signal design talent in 2021

You may have heard statements like, “Everything will be digital, and even signal processing is now performed in digital.” Or, “modern semiconductor designs will minimize analog content because you cannot easily port analog circuits to smaller process geometries.” And the list goes on.

For a start, design engineers will still need analog circuits to interface with the digital world. So, there will always be a need for analog design engineers because power supplies are analog, RF systems are analog, and audio products are analog. In short, the real world is analog.

If you talk to an analog industry executive, he or she will tell you that analog semiconductor outfits are not constrained by the lack of growth opportunities but by the availability of analog design engineers. Welcome to the black magic of analog design.

Figure 1 The real-world design environments still require a lot of analog signal processing, including gain, filtering, offset correction, biasing, and conversion. Source: Pulsic

The truth is that analog design engineering has never been a commodity. On the contrary, analog design expertise has always been at a premium. An esoteric art with complex and multiple engineering tradeoffs, analog design cannot be abstracted from device physics in the same way as digital design.

At the same time, however, it’s far more challenging to work in analog than in digital, where abstraction and design automation programs simplify the design work significantly. It takes 10-plus years of experience to become truly proficient in analog and mixed-signal design. Mark Waller, director of the user enablement at Pulsic, calls it the long apprenticeship that is not attractive to everyone. “That’s why most EE graduates are attracted to the easier domain of digital design.”

It’s becoming far more competitive to acquire the analog design engineering talent, especially in the power domain, says Sailesh Chittipeddi, executive VP and GM for IoT and Infrastructure Business Unit at Renesas. However, the real competition is not coming from other semiconductor firms but vertically integrated tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. “They are siphoning off some of the key semiconductor design talent.”

In Dialog Semiconductor’s case, the entire power management team that supported the application processors was acquired by Apple. “These companies are building processing capabilities, and around that, they are building power management, sensing, and analog capabilities,” Chittipeddi said. He added that the pure-play semiconductor outfits would have a hard time matching the salary offers coming from these tech giants.

It’s an interesting dynamic that is taking the semiconductor firms outside the traditional innovation hubs like Silicon Valley. It’s worth mentioning that Apple is now opening offices in Austin and North Carolina, the territories semiconductor companies sought to get hold of engineering talent. So, semiconductor outfits have even to move further away to areas like Ukraine and India to find the talent. “Chip companies are becoming geographically diverse not by choice but by necessity,” Chittipeddi said.

Is automation the solution?

So, while the low-end analog has already become a commodity, how does the semiconductor industry manage the dearth of high-performance analog design skills. While the availability of specialized analog design talent has not necessarily kept pace, according to Laurie Balch, research director at Pedestal Research, the opportunity for analog engineers is greater than ever. “That’s because the analog design is no longer the small niche that it once was perceived to be.”

One of the keys to addressing this lack of analog specialists will be to develop design tools that help take some of the mystique out of the analog design and help non-specialists engage in analog and mixed-signal design. “Putting into engineers’ hands more tools that offer automation advancements in the analog design space will be a huge boon to the engineering community,” she said.

Waller sees a similar trend. “Semiconductor outfits are increasingly looking toward analog automation to help them close the gap between demand for new circuits and available talent.” He added that automation promises to improve the productivity of their existing and experienced designers as well as accelerate the development of new talent. “It reduces the time spent on ‘pushing polygons’ and allows engineers to focus on what is important in their circuit.”

Figure 2 While tools are available for smaller analog circuits like amplifiers, converters and drivers, it gets challenging when you move to larger analog systems. Source: Siemens Software

The desire for more automation tools in the analog design realm isn’t new, and industry observers have been mostly skeptical about their prospect. That’s because tools can perform simpler tasks like layout, but cleverer things such as current sources and sinks still require human intervention. However, there has been made some progress recently.

Siemens Digital Industries Software has unveiled a power integrity verification solution that caters to digital as well as analog and mixed-signal blocks in large numbers. The mPower toolset can scale the dynamic analysis to hundreds of millions of transistors while previously it was limited to a couple of million transistors.

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