Foreign firms open design services shops in China
By Mike Clendenin, EE Times
November 24, 2003 (2:05 p.m. EST)
BEIJING Margins are tight, the market small and undeveloped, but this isn't stopping foreign companies from piling into the chip design services market in China. The heightened interest in mostly back-end design services here is so far being driven by a handful of large Chinese system makers interested in bringing down their costs and differentiating themselves by using custom chips.
Shanghai alone is home to nearly a dozen players, including Arcadia Design Systems, Faraday, Goya Technology, IBM and Verisilicon. Yet, with too many companies competing for too few projects, the market likely will remain rough and tumble for the foreseeable future.
The winners will be big system companies, like telecom equipment providers ZTE Corp. and Huawei, which can dangle projects in front of a crowd of willing takers. "When big guys like ZTE have a contract, it is too competitive," said Jeff Hu, an executive at Arcadia Design Systems (San Jose, Calif.). "You need some sort of secret weapon, like low power or low leakage-something that helps you really differentiate from others to win."
The larger potential market is also being stymied by the relative inexperience of small- and medium-size Chinese companies, which have difficulty clearly defining a specification for a particular application. "They have good knowledge of system-level design, but they don't know how to implement it in an ASIC," said Bob Su, the China president of Faraday Technology Corp. (Taipei, Taiwan), a provider of intellectual property and design services.
Much of the design work here involves back-end services, such as placement, routing and layout verification, along with mask layout and production and device prototyping. Some companies, like IBM, are providing front-end services as well as other programs to help set them apart. "We can offer workshops that give companies the necessary knowledge for technology migration, or to help them with SOI [silicon-on-ins ulator] or SiGe," said Hu Chih Chun, China director of IBM Corp.'s Engineering & Technology Services group.
The company is also willing to transfer manufacturing technology to Chinese fabs. "We have had a lot of inquiries on this," Hu said, adding that IBM would transfer manufacturing technology only with U.S.-government approval.
At this point, even some of the higher-profile companies are only doing a few projects a year, and most of those are end-to-end, turnkey designs. "Customers are looking at a chip from TI, Intel or Maxim, or whatever data sheet they are using, and they say, 'We want something like this,' " said Arcadia's Hu.
During the next few years, however, design services companies say that the market will improve. "Local companies have had a lot of failed projects, so they are getting a better understanding of what IP [intellectual property] is best for them," Su said.
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