Like many industries, the semiconductor industry has seen a dramatic change over the past several decades. Simple, single function devices have evolved into complex multi-function devices with firmware, supporting software and, in some cases, full reference designs. While the products that the semiconductor industry sells are still integrated circuits (ICs), in many cases the supporting software, documentation and system-level understanding are just as important as the product themselves. A key example of this are the products produced for the automotive industry that must meet the Functional Safety requirements of ISO 26262.
Early in the days of integrated circuit design, companies generally focused on developing single function products. The development focus was on continuously optimizing for different applications and in many cases improving performance metrics like power, speed, and bandwidth. Later came an increased focus on reducing product size and cost. The common thinking was that if team could build a product with better performance metrics than the previous generation, there would be a market for the product. For these teams the skill of circuit design and the capabilities of manufacturing were the ultimate competitive advantage. A great deal of system-level understanding is not required, although many teams had Applications Engineers with an understanding of the various applications their products would be used for.
For many companies in the semiconductor industry, circuit design and manufacturing are still competitive advantages. For others, an increased focus on integration has encouraged them to think in terms of providing a complete solution, rather than just products. Increasing levels of integration is often driven by a goal to decrease size and cost of the solution but doing so requires a better understanding of the end application and more systems-level thinking in developing the solution. This understanding of the end application leads to a focus on clearly understanding and communicating the requirements to ensure successful product development. While in single function products the requirements are often simple and the circuit design is the challenge, in more complex products the requirements can become quite complex and truly understanding the need is just as critical as executing on developing a solution.
No aspect of integrated circuit development increased functional complexity as much as adding firmware and software to the overall solution being provided. While adding software and firmware to a solution is often done to solve a specific problem, it quickly opens up such a wide range of functional possibilities that the complexity grows rapidly. While there are still teams focused on advancing the state of the art of circuit design, just as many (maybe more) teams are developing full solutions with a semiconductor element as well as firmware, software and even system integration. The ultimate representation of this trend is semiconductor companies providing complete reference designs that contain nearly all the engineering required to produce an end-product.
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In the automotive industry, the trend of providing a complete system-level solution has not been as strong as in other industries like IoT or consumer, but another trend has emerged: providing a safe solution. Integrated circuits sold into automotive applications have long had to achieve some of the toughest reliability standards. Now it is increasingly common for vehicle electronics to impact the safety of the vehicle, so not just reliability is required, but also functional safety. Achieving functional safety requires a lot more than circuit design and process technology. It requires understanding of how failures in an integrated circuit can impact the system. It requires robust development processes not traditionally employed in the semiconductor industry.
Nowhere was the need for this more strongly articulated than at the “Guidance & Application of ISO 26262 to Semiconductors” conference held virtually in August 2021. In the first session of the conference, several automotive OEMs joined forces to explain how important it is for semiconductor suppliers to develop pre-integrated, pre-certified and pre-tested solutions that meet the requirements of ISO 26262 and place the minimum burden on system integrators to integrate the solution into their system and safety case. Functional Safety adds a lot of overhead to vehicle development and receiving complete solutions from their suppliers goes a long way toward reducing that burden.
While many semiconductor suppliers have been playing catch up to meet the requirements of ISO 26262, others are turning it into a competitive advantage. These suppliers are winning business on the strength of their functional safety competency. They have developed robust processes featuring robust requirements management, configuration management and safety analysis. As a result, they can provide their customers complete safety cases that save their customers significant time when integrating their solutions. Some are even furthering the state of the art in functional safety by participating in standards development. It is common for multiple suppliers to have technically equivalent products, so in these cases safety competence can become the deciding factor in which semiconductor solution an OEM or Tier 1 supplier ultimately selects.
With the automotive industry working toward fully autonomous vehicles, the importance of developing safe products is more critical than ever. It will take the whole industry working together to furthering the state of the art in all areas to achieve the goal of full autonomy. That state of the art includes both skillful circuit design and robust process that ensure safety.
Never has there been a time where it was more critical for the semiconductor industry to adopt new skills. Circuit design and manufacturing will always be the core competency of semiconductor companies, but for those focused on the automotive industry safety, it is increasingly necessary for safety to be a core competency. Developing this as a core competency can lead to increased market share in today’s exciting automotive market.