Springtime for the UK chip industry

Springtime for the UK chip industryThe British microelectronics industry has always been renowned for having the brains but not the cash. That is now an advantage as intellectual property becomes king. David Manners reports. When GEC-Plessey Semiconductors was sold overseas, many mourned the passing of the Indigenous British Chip. But, despite the failure in chip-making of the big UK companies, the flame of native microelectronics talent remains alive – nurtured by a handful of talented entrepreneurs. The British are doing well in the new era of microelectronics where IP (Intellectual Property) is King. Brains have always been one necessity for chip-making, the other being cash. While the British have no shortage of brains, British electronics bosses have been ruinously mean about spending their cash on microelectronics. However the biggest expense – running a fab – has now been removed by the growth of silicon foundries. So brains have become more important than bucks. IP Rules. ARM, which is a pure-play microprocessor IP company – not only fabless, but also chipless – will be valued higher than GEC-Plessey Semiconductor when it floats on the market. Even microprocessor moguls Intel bought a licence from ARM. It is a remarkable example of successful British IP – valued right across the global electronics industry . There are still four British semiconductor companies which could be called fully integrated – i.e. with their own manufacturing plants. They are Zetex of Oldham, Power Innovations of Bedford, Semefab of Glenrothes, and Bookham Technology of Oxfordshire. Harwell spin-off Bookham Technology was founded four years ago to pursue electro-optical telecommunications components with a particularly interesting (gallium arsenide/indium phosphide) technology using low volume fab lines at Harwell’s AEA Technology and at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory. Its ‘ASOCs’ (Active Silicon integrated Optical Circuits) integrate lasers and detectors with optical switching elements. Zetex has grown right through the last two disastrous semiconductor industry years – topping $60m last year with a 17 per cent margin and making 27 per cent of its sales in Asia/Pac. Zetex’s linear IC business is growing like a weed – up 47 per cent last year – boosted by ASIC sales into the satellite broadcast market. It has launched an innovative analogue FPGA called TRAC which has created great interest, and also a package, called SOD323, which encapsulates a range of the Zetex Tuner and Schottky diodes in a small two lead package for use in confined space applications such as mobile phone handsets. Power Innovations, Texas Instruments’ former power semiconductor operation at Bedford, still sells the TI power line mainly high voltage lighting transistors and overvoltage protection devices for telecoms which account for 60 per cent of the business. The other 40 per cent is in Thyristors, Darlingtons, Triacs, NPN and PNP transistors. “You can buy superglue but there comes a time when a good nut and bolt is right for the job”, says Mick Maytum, PI’s applications director. The company is innovating mainly in the packaging area and in building up blocks of power devices which can be integrated together. “We can put up to 30 functional elements on a chip”, says Maytum. Semefab specialises in customised ASICs for consumer, automotive, security and home automation markets typically in 500,000+ volumes. It has a four inch fab running a range of processes including silicon and metal gate CMOS, metal gate PMOS, linear bipolar, dielectrically isolated CMOS and others of 2.5 micron line widths and greater. “One area”, says Semefab, managing director Alan James, “is mixed signal ASICs with medium scale integration – typically with less than 20,000 gates and under 20MHz – for simple control applications where often 50 per cent of the chip area is for analogue”. Semefab is not looking at standard chip markets but wants to achieve higher volumes by making custom parts which can be sold to several customers. The company has a windscreen wiper control chip designed in at Audi and Volkswagen which not only senses the car’s speed but incorporates a rain sensor. Being fabbed is fine but fabless is better say three British companies. The ‘fabless’ strategy means designing and selling own-brand, standard chips made in a foundry. The three are Wolfson Microelectronics of Edinburgh, Consumer Microcircuits of Witham, and Oxford Semiconductor of Abingdon. “We’ve completed the transition from design house to fabless”, says Wolfson’s John Urwin, “now all the work we do is for ourselves – we don’t do anything for anyone else.” Orders are running at $1m a month. Wolfson has had a big success in the market for single-chip analogue front-ends for scanners. It’s now sampling its fifth generation device – a chip with 12-bit accuracy which converts at 10Megabits per second. It sells for $4 to $5. Consumer Microcircuits Ltd (CML) was founded in 1968. It specialises in low power chips for audio processing and signalling. It has a range of low power telemetry modems for applications like remote meter reading and a baseband processor for digital mobile systems such as TETRA and APCO-25. CML is about to launch three chips: one for caller ID regeneration allowing caller ID and call waiting data to be supplied across pair gain systems and ISDN terminal adapters; second, a chip for global telephone tone generation; third, a chip for high speed (over 100Kbits/sec) GMSK wireless data. Oxford Semiconductor has been going five years and designed 40 ASICs last year but aims to be 50 per cent standard, own-brand product by 2001. “We want to be the UK’s leading fabless company”, says founder and director James Lewis. To that end it has developed a range of UARTS which have “an order of magnitude performance improvement in terms of data throughput compared to conventional products”, says Lewis. “We’re going to move next to a higher level, taking UARTS and making them into single chip communications controllers for PCs”, says Lewis. A series of ASICs incorporating 1394 interfaces is about to be announced. The company anticipates about $9m in revenues this year. The British Semiconductor Industry is best known for its plethora of pure design houses like Swindon Silicon Systems, Phoenix Technologies, Cambridge Consultants, The Technology Partnership, PRQ, Garfield Microelectronics, Silicon Microsystems, Plextek, Deva Electronic Controls, Axis Microelectronics, and Linkmos. Some of these, like Swindon Silicon Systems are gradually making their way towards the fabless model. “We’re selling 50 per cent standard parts and 50 per cent ASICs and we’re moving more towards the standard parts”, says Swindon’s Charlie McDerment. The company is having a big success with its high speed devices for SDH transmission. Phoenix Technologies of Towcester was aptly named – representing the rebirth of microelectronics through entrepreneurship after the big companies failed. Phoenix’s founders were the silicon design team at Plessey’s renowned Caswell Laboratories. After GEC took over Plessey, GEC discontinued corporate funding of silicon research and, led by Ray Oakley, 17 of the Caswell team left to set up Phoenix. They have created a ?3m turnover company. Mainly design oriented, the applications brief is ‘anything complicated, high performance and digital’. Phoenix is starting to spin off venture capital-backed companies like IRIS and ART for specific technological opportunities like graphics accelerators. Recently it moved into a Grade II listed 18th century Water Mill. As engineers will, one could not resist getting the wheel to work.
When you look at its parts, the British Semiconductor Industry is surprisingly strong, multi-facetted and multi-talented. As the value-added of the industry increasingly accrues to those with intellect and creativity, the British chip industry will flourish.


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