Analog Devices (ADI) offers signal processing and conditioning products. It caters to several markets including communication infrastructure, industrial, healthcare, automotive and consumer. ADI has close to $3-billion turnover and 60,000 customers worldwide.
Somshubhro Pal Choudhury (Som), managing director-India, Analog Devices, spoke to Abhishek Mutha of EFY about the incremental versus fundamental change in research, the challenge faced while coming up with an advanced driver-assistance system, and why it is still an analogue world even though everything around us is digitised
Q. In an almost wholly digital world, where do analogue components stand?
A. We live in a digital world but all of us interface to the physical world, which is analogue. Be it speech, image, temperature or radio signals, these are all inherently analogue. These analogue signals need to be captured, filtered or conditioned, amplified, and fed into the digital world using an analogue-to-digital converter, and finally processed digitally. Then the information goes back from this digital world to the analogue world. This is called the analogue signal chain. It would probably be apt to say it is a digital world but there is always an analogue bridge to the digital world.
Q. Usually, while converting data from analogue to digital, we lose some information. Then why is conversion given so much importance?
A. Today, we have to capture all the physical world information, convert it, process it, store it, and finally interact back to the physical world by sending some control signals. The most essential and important thing in this process is conversion from analogue to digital signals to process them.
You are absolutely right that we lose some information, but in the end it is all about precision. For example, while measuring temperature using a digital thermometer, the first question that arises is the precision required of the measurement—whether it is 98.4 or 98.45. An extra decimal point signifies more accuracy and precision of the converters. Depending on the precision requirement, the right converter should be picked.
Q. From a conversion standpoint, precision must be a big challenge. Are there any other challenges you would like to talk about?
A. Yes, there are several challenges while converting data from analogue to digital. Analogue signals are continuous signals, not discrete with respect to time, whereas digital signals are a distinct ‘0’ or ‘1.’ An analogue signal, being a continuous signal, gets highly impacted by the noise. The noise is contributed by the electronic circuitry where the analogue portion resides, thermal environment, interference and cross-talk even from other associated devices. The challenge is the conditioning of the incoming signal, i.e., eliminating or reducing the noise. In other words, it is signal filtering to minimise noise.
Low power is another challenge gaining importance from a system’s perspective. Here power refers to the amount of energy required by the converter to convert each bit of information.
Also, in the digital world there is far better correlation between simulation (using CAD tools, for example) and the actual silicon out of the fabrication unit, whereas in the case of analogue there is still a considerable difference between the two. As it is not possible to fabricate multiple times and correlate with the simulation, this is a critical challenge.
At last, in the conversion process, it is necessary to hold a signal for a certain time before processing and converting it into digital. The more the electronics is involved, the higher the precision needed and hence the larger the delay. Talking about high-performance converters and precision converters, these are orthogonal (independent) in terms of requirement and design challenges. But the market is demanding both higher precision and higher performance together. These are some of the challenges from a conversion standpoint.
Q. We are seeing fewer revolutionary changes in the current hi-tech industry. Have research priorities changed due to a mature market?
A. Research is fundamental to innovation, but as the hi-tech industry has matured the innovations from research are more of an incremental rather than a fundamental change. Let’s take the case of semiconductors. Silicon has been used for long now but there is no transition to a fundamentally different material. Moore’s law has been followed by packing more transistors, higher performance and lower power on silicon but again that is an incremental change. As the industry matures and goes mass market, that typically will be the nature of the innovations.
Q. Electronic products are consistently improving wrt power efficiency, performance and size. What else goes into the innovation ecosystem?
A. It is not always about lower power, higher performance or smaller size but also the way technology is used. Consider a classic example of the Apple iPhone touchscreen interface. That is sheer innovation because it changed the way we interact with our devices.
At ADI, we do plough back close to 20 per cent of our revenue into research and development. But in-house fundamental research, not considering product development, has declined in big companies over the years. This has been captured by start-ps and also the academia industry partnerships.
I have been based in the Silicon Valley for the last 15 years, which has the advantages of the Stanford and Berkeley universities, serious entrepreneurs who have done multiple startups, proximity to the customers, and most importantly availability of angel investors and venture capitalists. These four things together create a fantastic innovative ecosystem.
Q. Low power, low cost and reliability are the major requirements today. Anything being done at ADI to address these requirements?
A. ADI is concentrating on integration in terms of having the complete analogue signal chain on a single chip or package. We are using a lot of proprietary and industry-standard techniques to conserve power on the analogue as well as the digital side. At the end of the day, we are testing and qualifying our chips not just at the chip level but also at the system level to ensure that the chips perform when customers associate them with their systems.
Q. While developing a product, what major constraints were faced?
A. Today, electronic design constraints are fast processing speeds, capability to handle large volumes of data, high-accuracy measurements, miniaturisation and ultra-low power. We face these constraints and meet customers’ demands by our lower cost and fast time-to-market. The analogue bridge to the digital world is all about interfacing continuously between the analogue and the digital worlds, which, in turn, calls for more integration and faster response times.
The three basic things that the market is looking for are high performance, ultra-low power, and high integration in a smaller form factor.
From an industry and Analog Device perspective, we are developing more ASSPs (Application Specific Standard Product) for target markets. In many cases, we are putting in many of the signal chain components like sensors, amplifiers, filters, and converters on a single package.
Q. What challenge excited you the most in the development of automotive electronics?
A. An interesting challenge that we faced recently came from a DSP chip, developed for an automotive application called advanced driver assistance system. This is a pipeline video processor, which receives feeds or multiple frames from the camera, extracts information out of them and intelligently makes some decisions.
The requirement of the customer was incorporation of five applications—collision-avoidance system, lane departure system, pedestrian detection or pedestrian proximity detection, beam control, and traffic signal detection—into the chip. These applications could help avoid any major error in judgement by the driver. The challenge essentially was to incorporate all these five applications on a single chip and to ensure that they work simultaneously.
Q. How does Anveshan, your fellowship programme, help budding engineers?
A. Anveshan is a project fellowship programme that we started back in 2010, focused on the university students to enhance their system design expertise. We launched the 2012 version in August. This fellowship gives students an opportunity to realise their dreams. The fundamentals and theories are provided by the universities but actual practical application of system design is not taught at the universities. We provide them guidance and help them in building their system. We started Anveshan to bridge the gap between industries and universities. By pairing the student teams from the universities with mentors from the industries, our overall goal is to increase the level of system design in India.
Q. Is it possible for students from any engineering college to participate?
A. Absolutely. In 2012, we reached out to over 100 universities and colleges all over India. We received more than 200 registrations and over 100 submissions. Currently, we are processing them and the selected ones will be mentored by our industry experts. In the end, we would be choosing three top products for attractive prizes.
Q. Could you talk about the hiring policies of Analog Devices? Do you recruit freshers?
A. Our goal at Analog Devices is to hire the best. ADI does extensive hiring from the universities recruiting freshers as well as lateral hiring from the industry. We visit top universities like IISc, IITs, and so forth. It has also widely been acknowledged by students that ADI’s selection process is pretty stringent and challenging. Lateral hiring happens through multiple sources. We have industry’s leading recruiters working for us and we are also extensively using social-networking platforms like LinkedIn and other referral programs to pick out the right candidates based on the references from our existing employees.
Q. What kind of skill-sets do you look for while recruiting?
A. Skill-sets required are multiple. If I’m hiring a field application engineer, the criteria along with technical expertise would be inter-personal skills because he would be interacting with customers all the time. In case of technical engineers, which includes hardware and software designers, we follow a stringent selection process in terms of technical expertise. During the course of inception training, there is an extensive training for about 1 or 2 weeks on IC Design, Software Design, Embedded Software, Different technologies of Mixed Signal, Digital Signal Processing and so on. We also touch upon the social and presentation skills.
Q. Is it possible for you to talk about the number of people you are looking to hire?
A. We typically don’t disclose the number of people we will hire but frankly speaking we would not be one of those companies that hire 100s of people every year. We do this for a specific reason. We, at ADI, hire primarily for the skills and expertise. We take full ownership of the product from concept to silicon and we have built up this design center based on centers of excellence and not from a cost arbitration stand point. The way we are planning to grow is by building up the skill-sets and expertise in specific areas.