Exciting Opportunities Opening up in the Automotive Market

This article originally appeared in the March 06, 2018 edition of  EE News EuropeRead the original article.

home-page-news-eenews-automotiveThe traditional automotive electronics market is dominated by a handful of big, Tier 1 suppliers with a long-established supply chain. This historically leaves only a few aftermarket and infotainment systems open for everyone else.  Now, however, a real revolution is going on with the race to develop electric and driverless cars.

The speed of innovation means that many of the traditional Tier 1 suppliers don’t have the necessary skills to create solutions for these new technologies, creating a gap in the market for new and innovative companies to enter.

The problem for these newcomers is that their products could be used in systems that are safety critical and therefore their products need to meet stringent reliability and safety standards, such as AECQ and ISO 26262. These standards apply not only in manufacturing, but also in the design and every aspect of development up to and beyond the mass production phase. It entails a meticulous amount of pre-planning and long-term data collection and storage.

The purpose of these standards is increasingly to ensure a problem does not arise in production. However, if a problem occurs and, in the worst case, car manufacturers have to recall cars, they want to be able to recall as few as possible to keep costs down. So they need to be able to isolate just those ones with an issue. This means being able to trace individual faulty chips right back to the individual wafer that they came from. That requires a lot of processes and expertise to provide such an exacting level of audit control.

This is a huge challenge for a company entering in this market.  Their primary skills are in the innovative Intellectual Property that provides a solution.  Turning this into a fully, automotive-qualified chip first needs a design team that knows all the automotive design specifications that have to be adhered to.

For example, if something goes wrong, what does the chip do?  What should the failsafe setting be and what happens when it is enacted, i.e. what is the effect analysis on the consequences of a fault and the knock on effects to the rest of the system?  This has to be done right at the design stage as it is fundamental to safety and cannot be altered without a redesign.  Right first time is never a more appropriate goal.

Another important consideration at the design stage is to build in security.  The recent Spectre and Meltdown issues have highlighted the importance of having protection to prevent hackers gaining access.  The huge amount of software and internet access being built into the next generation of cars will provide an open gate that hackers can use unless gatekeepers are built in at the chip level to prevent unauthorised access.  Again, EnSilica has many years of experience in building state of the art encryption and authorisation features into ASIC designs for a large number of customers.

Chip safety testing

Chip safety testing

Secondly, a dedicated team of people is needed to handle every stage of manufacture and test with the right partners, as well as to manage and maintain the detailed audit records.  Such a team can add a lot of people to the headcount plus the headache of finding the right people, training them on the job to work together and managing the project.  All of which has to be right first time.  Any errors could need a re-spin that can add months to a project’s timeline, which is typically three years from initial idea to the shipping of volume products.

For fifteen years, EnSilica has been taking customers’ ideas and designing ASICs for them to then take over the manufacture and test process themselves.  This new automotive market opportunity has meant that customers have been coming to us to design chips that need to meet automotive standards.  However, they are realising that the process of turning a design into a chip to these high standards is far more complicated than they first realised and asked if we could help solve this problem for them.

The solution, which is rapidly gaining traction as fabless companies realise the enormity of doing it all themselves, is to outsource to partners who have the skills and experience to ensure that the whole process runs smoothly and on time.

EnSilica is not quite starting from scratch in the automotive sector. Our RADAR co-processor for driverless cars has given us first-hand knowledge of these processes.  Put that together with an experienced supply chain, which offers tailored automotive processes and manufacturing lines, and we have an offering that is competitive with existing Tier 1 suppliers.


Experienced supply chain management from wafer to chip

As a result, EnSilica now has an experienced in-house team that understands all the processes along with a complete, end-to-end chain of trusted partners to handle every production stage that are all pre-qualified to handle automotive chips.  This includes having backups so that there is no single source and customers can have peace of mind with continual product supply.

This will be supported by EnSilica being audited to the ISO 9000 2015 standard that is due to be completed by end of Q1 2018, replacing its existing ISO9000 2008 accreditation. The company can now offer a turnkey solution from design to chip thus opening up the automotive market for creative companies to provide the innovative products that car manufacturers need by turning their ideas into chips.  This is a really exciting opportunity for them to build a significant technical lead in the development of driverless and electric cars.

About the Author:

Patrick McNamee is Director of Silicon Operations at EnSilica

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