Tuesday, September 10, 2019
China’s quest to become a semiconductor powerhouse over the next decade could get a boost from a sharper focus on developing the advanced software used to design chips.
While the country is currently behind the United States in electronic design automation (EDA) software development, technology industry veterans in the academe suggest that the world’s second largest economy has an opportunity to catch up in this field.
“There is less and less talent [involved in EDA in the US],” said Martin Wong Ding-fat, dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in an interview at the recent Smart China Expo held in Chongqing in southwest China.
“If you look at the main companies in this software market segment, the average age of many [of their EDA engineers] are like 50 years old now,” Wong said. “So this is an opportunity for China to invest [in talent and other resources to support EDA research and development].”
EDA is a category of software tools used for designing advanced integrated circuits, or chips containing billions of transistors, which serve as the “brains” that power everything from modern electric appliances, smartphones and personal computers to sophisticated medical equipment, cars and aircraft.
These tools eliminate manual errors as well as cuts the time and cost associated with designing chips. EDA software has become more important over the years, as designers deal with the complexity of having more transistors on smaller integrated circuits. That follows Moore’s Law, an industry trend credited to an observation made by Intel Corp co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, in which the number of transistors in chips doubles every two years.
“We are still following Moore’s Law,” said You Zheng, vice-president of Tsinghua University in Beijing, in a separate interview at the same expo held from August 26 to 29 in Chongqing. “But it will be difficult [to continue following]” as the industry approaches the perceived limits of that law.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest contract chip maker, already plans to start commercial production of 5-nanometre chips next year. IBM and its partners first unveiled 5nm process technology in 2017, paving the way for a chip the size of a fingernail to be designed with 30 billion transistors.
“I don't even know where they can go after three nanometres [in the semiconductor fabrication process],” CUHK’s Wong said. “But the software [to design chips] can be further improved”.
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For China, EDA software development represents another area of the semiconductor industry supply chain in which more efforts are needed to close the gap with leading countries, such as the US, and become more self-reliant in chip technology. That supply chain includes research; design; manufacturing; assembly, test and packaging; and distribution.
While China’s top leadership has redoubled efforts to channel more funds and state support  into the sector in the hopes of narrowing that gap, the level of investment remains far behind those of large US enterprises. Intel alone spent US$13.6 billion in research and development in the 12-month period ended June 30.
That compares with the 140 billion yuan (US$19.6 billion) in the 13th Five-Year Plan that runs through 2016 to 2020 and the 200 billion yuan that the state-backed China Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund  is raising.
The US-China trade and tech war has further complicated matters. The Trump administration has moved to cut off the flow of vital American technologies, such as chips and software, to major mainland hi-tech companies over security concerns. Telecommunications equipment maker Huawei Technologies, which runs semiconductor firm HiSilicon, was added to the US trade blacklist  in May.
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CUHK’s Wong said academic researchers in the US are not getting enough funding to pursue further EDA development. “So these professors and a lot of engineers in the field have moved on to do something else,” he said. “They’ve left for companies like Facebook and Google.”
Without suggesting China should recruit EDA researchers from overseas, Wong said academic researchers can work closely with tech firms to develop new EDA tools. CUHK, for example, is listed fourth in EDA-related research among the world’s top computer science institutions, according to CSRankings.
To be sure, the US remains home to the world’s largest EDA tools suppliers – Synopsys, Cadence Design Systems and Mentor, a subsidiary of German conglomerate Siemens – leading a global market that totalled US$9.8 billion last year. In China, the top domestic EDA provider is Beijing-based Huada Empyrean Software.
Synopsys, Cadence, Mentor and Empyrean did not immediately respond to separate emailed requests for comments.
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Although China faces plenty of work ahead in EDA software development, CUHK’s Wong said Asia already “has done a good job” on certain aspects of the EDA process, such as physical level design – a step in the standard design cycle, which follows after the circuit design.
China’s chip design industry has also continued to expand, according to research firm TrendForce. Its total revenue reached 251.5 billion yuan in 2018, up nearly 23 per cent from a year earlier, led by HiSilicon, Tsinghua Group subsidiary Unisoc Communications and Beijing OmniVision Technologies.
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