By Ed Sperling
Putting analog and digital engineers in the same room used to elicit strange looks and under-the-breath comments, but most companies have gotten beyond that stage. Now the question is how to pair them up effectively, get them all on the same team—sometimes even with software engineers thrown into the mix—while still getting a product out the door on time.
This is easier said than done. The goals of each side, the timetables, and the communication that is necessary along the way are all different. Throw in variables such as timing, last-minute functional changes, in-house hardware verification vs. in-field software verification, and power issues, and the challenges grow at each process node and each new design at existing nodes.
So how exactly are companies grappling with this, and what do they need to keep in mind? There’s no single manual for best practices, but there are some real-world stories about what’s working, as well as some new research to support it all.
The first step in any team-building exercise is communication. Simply bringing together teams with different disciplines and letting them hear the problems the other teams are encountering can go a long way toward making a team function as a team rather than working in silos under a single roof.
“Just sharing information and providing insight into design tasks can help,” said Michelle Boucher, a research analyst in Aberdeen Group’s product innovation engineering practice. “If you get those processes in place you can see how an engineering change order affects the other parts of a design. We’ve seen that happening with mechanical and electrical engineers collaborating together, and with the manufacturing part of the process, as well.”
This becomes particularly important in complex designs because power issues have forced companies to look well beyond the SoC into both the software and across the printed circuit board. It also has made packaging an up-front consideration.
Some companies have gone so far as cross-training their engineers and systems architects, although exactly how far that training can proceed is debatable. It takes years to develop good digital and analog engineers, and years more to effectively progress in areas such as functional verification. The presence of the other disciplines on the same team still makes some engineers uneasy.
Bridging the analog-digital chasm
When Ted Tewskbury, an analog engineer by training, took over as president and CEO of IDT two years ago and began pitching his vision, the digital engineering team asked him if they should start looking for new jobs. He has since expanded the company beyond its digital core into analog and mixed signal, but he said the problem most often encountered is fusing together the two worlds.
“The real challenge is getting folks to talk,” Tewksbury said. “We’re not trying to convert one camp to another, but the power of IDT is the power of analog and digital and each has its own very distinctive methodology.”
The most effective way of achieving this kind of communication is set up some kind of communication forum so that engineers on both sides can listen to the design challenges each is facing along the way. In the case of multinational companies, that requires bringing together design teams on a regular basis to talk.
It also requires a strong team leader—one with the leadership skills, the ability meet deadlines, and one capable of deep understanding of technology issues. And they generally have to be able to present well to customers, listen well, and to be able to know when a problem is brewing and how to solve it.
“It really does come down to the lead person and very strong project management skills,” Tewksbury said. “You need system expertise, product management, project management, people skills, the ability to work with customers and a willingness to get on a plane. The flip side is it’s an extremely gratifying job.”
But the team leader is only part of the equation. The skills below the leader have to be interlaced effectively, with cross training in related skills whenever possible.
“You really need to start with a strong core team,” said Hao Nham, vice president and general manager of eSilicon’s design service. “They need to do many things together and get to know each other. That helps because when you put your design methodology together it cannot just be academic. Before I took over this job I used to run the EDA department, and where people get stuck is when they have a big methodology department. Methodology is essential, but methodology alone won’t get the job done.”
eSilicon solved some of these personnel issues by hiring a block of engineers out of Bell Labs. All had worked together, even though they had different skill sets, and they were used to the same processes for development and getting technologies to market.
Nham said another requirement is making sure all the people on the team are motivated. A more-experienced team can train a less-experienced team, but the less-experienced part has to pull its own weight and stretch to new capabilities.
“We do a lot of cross-mentoring,” he said. “You cannot rely on a group training by itself. You don’t want to take an analog engineer and train him to be a digital engineer, but you can do layout training for both disciplines.”
But the team also needs some new approaches even beyond the typical SoC piece. Power has made it essential to include packaging and PCBs, and that will become even more important as designs shift to more advanced process geometries, 3D IC stacking, and system-in-package types of layouts with interposers because heat will have to be dissipated in multiple ways.
“There’s a downstream effect of low-power design,” said Dave Wiens, business development manager for the systems design division at Mentor Graphics. “A PCB has multiple voltage rails and a lower impedance power distribution network. To the board, this means compartmentalized constraints. And while constraints enable collaboration, they also create a barrier to direct dialog.”
That’s not to say that constraints are bad. They’re the state of the art in electronic systems design. But typically they’re like black boxes created by teams scattered around the globe. Until there’s a failure—either the product doesn’t get out on time or on budget or at all—then those approaches to design are unlikely to be challenged.
“A design team might have a really bright idea, but if they present it and it doesn’t work they might not have a job,” said Wiens. “People become entrenched in a solution and a way of doing things.”
It goes without saying that the best teams also require the best tools. A recent study by the Aberdeen Group benchmarked the use of best-in-class tools for PCB design and determined that for companies using the top tools, 88% of the products launched on time with a 13% decrease in development time. Moreover, those best-in-class tools met product cost targets 86% of the time, cut costs by 11% and met quality targets at design release 88% of the time.
Couple that with best practices for using the tools—effective team building—and the results show significant improvement.
There has been talk about collaboration and sharing information among different groups for years. The “silo effect” was an idea introduced in the 1990s as part of a massive business process re-engineering effort by consulting companies seeking to break down corporate barriers.
Chip companies have been among the last to realize these changes, in part because the integration of these different worlds is so complex. It also doesn’t happen without a strong push from the top down—meaning support from the CEO and CTO—and a willingness of engineering teams to embrace this collaboration and communication from the bottom up. It also isn’t easy to find team leaders. But as best practices go, the advantages of getting this one right are enormous.
“The top challenge among systems engineering companies is overcoming the knowledge gap,” said Aberdeen’s Boucher. “The tools are not there yet, but there are a lot of companies trying to figure out a better way of doing things.”