“Research is now incremental rather than revolutionary”

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Analog Devices deals with signal processing and conditioning technologies. They play in several market segments like communication infrastructure, industrial, healthcare, automotive, and consumer. Analog Devices (ADI) has close to $3 billion in revenue and 60,000 customers worldwide.

Somshubhro (Som) Pal Choudhury, managing director – India, Analog Devices, talks to Abhishek Mutha of EFY about the incremental versus fundamental change in research, a recent challenge faced while coming up with ADAS, and justifies why it’s still an analogue world even though everything around us is digitised.

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Somshubhro (Som) Pal Choudhury

Q. In an almost wholly digital world, where do Analog Devices come in?
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, fed into the digital world using an analogue to digital converter, and finally process it digitally. Then the information goes back from this digital world to the analogue world. This is what we call as the analogue signal chain and this is what we do at Analog Devices. We excel in these components of analogue signal chain, which includes sensors, amplifiers, filters, converters, digital signal processors, and so forth.

Q. What’s Analog Devices’ USP?
A. It’s three things. High performance, high reliability, and product innovation. If any system engineer would be questioned as to why he has chosen Analog Devices’ product, the response would be high performance and high reliability as the product would conform to the specifications even 5 to 10 years later. From laser trim, in its initial days, to tweaking the IC performance even when it’s in the fabrication unit to designing a monolithic converter to designing a 16 bit converter to designing a MEMS chip for the automotive sector or completely integrated MEMS gyroscopes, Analog Devices has been in the fore front for decades from a product innovation stand point. Considering the last 6 months press releases’, Analog Devices has come up with many industry firsts like octal ultrasound receiver, lowest power and smallest size heart rate monitor, extremely low power MEMS accelerometer, and an ultra low noise MEMS microphone for the hand-held devices.

Q. It is observed that there are less revolutionary changes in the current hi-tech industry. Have research priorities changed to account for the matured market?
A. Research is fundamental to innovation, but as the hi-tech industry has matured, the innovations from research have taken more of an incremental rather than a fundamental change. Incremental, in the case of semiconductors, means silicon has been used from a very long time 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, it will typically be the nature of innovation.

Q. Electronics consistently improve w.r.t power efficiency, performance and smaller size. What else goes into the innovation ecosystem?
A. It’s 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 touch screen interface. That is sheer innovation because it changed the way we interact with our devices. At Analog Devices, 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 the big companies over the years. This has been captured by the start-ups and also the academia industry partnerships. Being based on the silicon valley for almost 15 years, if that kind of an ecosystem can be seen – the Stanford and Berkeley universities, serial entrepreneurs who have done multiple start-ups, proximity to the customers, and most importantly availability of Angel & Venture capital – these 4 things together create a fantastic innovation ecosystem.

Q. What’s Analog India Product Development Center (IPDC) all about?
A. Started back in 1995 with 10 Shark DSP (Shark is the brand name for AD’s digital signal processors) engineers, today, we do a broad number of products across multiple segments and multiple technologies. To give an example, we designed the latest generations of Blackfinn and Shark DSP Processors. We are also working on A6 for inner shell MEMS, DSP, and other processing technologies for audio/video, motor control, and so on in the automotive segment. Besides that, we have a big team in mixed signal domain. Mixed signal, in India primarily, means the converter domain. We have teams working on A-D and D-A converters for both precision and high-speed, which is very important as we have close to 48 per cent market share globally. Teams in India tend to take complete product ownership. So we are not just designing the hardware according to the specifications but also making the software that’s powering up the semiconductor chips and performing product test and engineering. Having multi-million dollar equipments in our lab helps us to test, characterise, and qualify the chips every time the chips come back from the fabrication unit. We also have a team of application engineers who are not only supporting customers locally in India or Asia-Pacific but globally. Besides that we have few software engineer teams and system design experts for industrial, automotive, and the consumer markets as well.

Q. Could you talk about an interesting challenge faced in the development of automotive electronics?
A. Regarding the kind of design challenges that we face, an interesting challenge that we faced recently came from a DSP chip developed for an automotive application called Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS). 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 5 applications – collision avoidance system, lane departure system, pedestrian detection or pedestrian proximity detection, beam control, and traffic signal detection. These applications would 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 ensure that they work simultaneously.

Q. So ADAS would be only for the high-end cars or even for the low-cost ones?
A. Currently this is for the high-end ones but technology moves very quickly from the high-end cars to the lower ones. Going back a couple of years, the air-bag system in Indian cars were almost non-existent but now even the lower end cars have started to have air-bags. Same is the case with high end audio and GPS system. They start off on the high-end side and gradually make their way down to the lower end.

Q. Why is data conversion given so much importance? Usually while converting it from analogue to digital, we do lose some information.
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 do lose some information but in the end it’s all about precision. For example, while measuring temperature using a digital thermometer, the first question that arises is the precision required on the measurement whether its 98.4 or 98.45. An extra decimal point signifies more accuracy and precision on the converters. Depending on the precision requirement, the right converter should be picked.

Q. From a conversion stand-point, 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. Analogue signal, being a continuous signal, gets highly impacted by noise sources. The noise is contributed from electronic circuitry where the analogue portion resides, thermal environment, interference, and cross-talk even from other associated devices. A big challenge is conditioning of the incoming signal i.e. eliminating or reducing the noise. In other terms, it’s signal filtering to minimise noise. Secondly, low power is another challenge gaining importance from a system perspective. Here power refers to the amount of energy required by the converter to convert each bit of information. Thirdly, in digital world there is far better correlation between simulation (using CAD tools, for example) versus the actual silicon out of the fabrication unit where as 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. Lastly, in the conversion process, it is necessary to hold a signal for a certain time before processing and converting it into digital. More the electronics involved, higher precision is needed and hence larger the delay. Talking about high performance converters and precision converters, they are orthogonal (independent) in terms of requirement and design challenges. But market is demanding both higher precision and higher performance together. These are some of the challenges from a conversion stand-point.

Q. When developing a product, what are the major constraints faced?
A. Today’s electronic design constraints are faster processing speeds, capability to handle large volumes of data, high accuracy measurements, miniaturization, and ultra low-power. The customer’s demands we face to meet these constraints are lower cost and faster time-to-market. The analogue bridge to the digital world is all about interfacing continuously between the analogue and the digital world 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.

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