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Stimulating the take-up of Microelectronic Solutions

by David Broster, Technology for Components and Subsystems, DGIII-F3

Presented at the Third IEEE International Conference on Electronics, Circuits & Systems '96, Rhodos Greece - October 1996

This plenary talk preceded a special conference session during which 18 ESPRIT projects presented their industrial results.


The challenge of developing competitive products for sale on global markets increasingly requires the innovative use of microelectronics. Some industrial sectors have firmly grasped these technologies and are reaping the benefits of extraordinary cost/performance improvements, whilst others have taken a more cautious approach and are finding it more difficult to come to terms with both the technologies and their rapid pace of evolution.

Electronics and microelectronics products underpin modern business and government by providing the fabric of information processing and distribution which we have all become dependent on. The production of microelectronics components is a global business and electronics systems built with these components have to compete in global markets. Understanding microelectronics, and in particular mastering its application in products, is a key survival requirement for electronic systems companies. Microelectronics is a very complex and rapidly evolving technology, and therefore, companies incorporating it into their products must themselves be dynamic and determined to make the necessary investment in people, their skills and tools.

Likewise, publicly funded programmes must also be dynamic and responsive to the quite dramatic changes which are taking place in industry, business in general and society. Some of the most dramatic of these changes to the industrial fabric are a consequence of the phenomenal growth, the widespread acceptance and increasing dependence on information technologies.

The Community Programme for Research and Development in Information Technology, commonly referred to as ESPRIT, is an industrially focused programme which provides an opportunity for European industries to work together, along with institutes and universities, to further the state-of-the-art, to master IT and above all to broaden the use of these technologies through industrial "takeup" activities.

Community supported R&D work must be carried out in Europe with at least two industrial partners coming from at least two Member States. Proposals for R&D projects are submitted in response to public calls against topics defined in a published workprogramme. Proposals are evaluated by an independent team of experts in a competitive situation. The best proposals are selected on the basis of the results of the evaluation.

The ESPRIT workprogramme embraces a spectrum of activities, defined in topic domains. These include software and hardware components and subsystems, integration of these underpinning technologies, for example in embedded processing systems, multimedia as demonstrators and/or trial applications. Other domains include work on high performance computing, integrated manufacturing systems, technologies for business processes and basic research for IT. The content of the workprogrammes is defined after broad consultation with industry, academia and governments.

ESPRIT provides many good examples of the way in which a public funded R&D programme can adapt and respond in a flexible way to changes in industrial priorities and needs. For example, ESPRIT has adopted a rolling, annually up-dated workprogramme which is addressed through frequent, focused calls. In some domains, a two-step proposal system has been introduced in order to provide both a rapid response and a reduction of the industrial effort needed to bring forward new ideas.

I will now outline some of the ways in which the microelectronics part of the workprogramme has developed in recent years and how it is supporting technology development, industrial learning and notably, how it is stimulating a broadening of the use of microelectronics through industrial take-up actions.

Closing the "technology gap"

Six years ago European governments were concerned about a so-called "technology gap" in microelectronics. That gap was measured in terms of the delay with which submicron technology was introduced by European companies as compared to their Japanese and American counterparts. The delay was measured in years. Today, after a heavy investment in R&D, engineering and production facilities, the gap has been closed. Those European companies - seven in total - who participated to ESPRIT and to national programmes under the EUREKA project JESSI, are essentially "at par" in terms of the technology they can offer to the market.

Moreover, in 1995 these European companies were profitable - and it would have been daring to predict such development only a few years ago ! That is why people now say, Europe has its second chance in microelectronics - assuming that the first one in the '80s which was driven by consumer electronics in Japan and computers in US passed by largely unexploited in Europe.

Today, R&D work on 0.35 micron CMOS technology is being completed and the focus has shifted to work on process modules for 0.18 micron and below. Of course, work on advanced semiconductor processes is extremely expensive and an activity which is often carried out through global co-operation.

Complementary to the process technology work are activities on advanced packaging, multichip modules and fine line interconnect board systems. Moreover, the increasing popularity of bare-die mounting, has brought together a large number of users and suppliers intent on refining the techniques for testing and shipping "known-good-die".

In 1995, ESPRIT launched an action to enable the assessment of advanced prototypes of European sourced semiconductor manufacturing equipment. In this action, experts drawn from interested user companies from around the globe are able to make a joint assessment in terms of overall performance, throughput, reliability, maintainability, etc.

Emphasising "learning actions" - to build up the engineering base

To exploit the full potential of microelectronics technologies requires a considerable investment in producing highly qualified engineers. In the early 90's European industry identified an impending shortage of engineers practically equipped to meet the demand to design application specific microelectronics components. In response, the European Commission launched and supported a Pan-European graduate and post-graduate learning programme called EUROCHIP (1992-5). EUROCHIP provided universities with a comprehensive, affordable set of commercial design tools and co-ordinated multi-project access to silicon. Students were able to gain practical experience with real silicon experiments. The following impressive statistics illustrate the impact of the 4 year 18.7 Mecu EUROCHIP action :

The success of the EUROCHIP approach provided an opportunity to offer assistance to a number of extraEuropean initiatives which, in turn, were able to gain enormous benefit from the European experience. ESPRIT provided support and links for activities in Latin American (IBERCHIP) and Central and Eastern European countries (EUROEAST). In both cases help was provided for establishing regional microelectronics support and design centres, distribution of design packages, education and training for students, and technology transfer to industrial microelectronics users.

IBERCHIP running from 1994-6, established some 28 centres and nodes in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Columbia with secondary nodes in Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. Whilst EUROEAST (1994-97) established some 30 centres and nodes in Romania, Poland and the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia. Of course, bootstrapping the learning process in these countries has the positive side-effect of encouraging the development of potential future markets for European industry.

Building and expanding on the EUROCHIP experience, ESPRIT launched EUROPRACTICE in October 1995. EUROPRACTICE is designed to cover a broad range of systems orientated technologies and its services are targeted not only to academia but also to all types of industrial users. EUROPRACTICE services include training, design packages and access to prototype manufacturing for a broad range of microelectronics technologies, chip and subsystem packaging, and microsystems. Specific training and service needs are identified through industrial surveys and are being satisfied through close collaboration with software and manufacturing service providers. I'll talk later of how these services can bring benefits to a broad range of industrial users when I discuss the impact of the First User Action.

Industrial "TAKE-UP"

But now, I want to move on to describe how the ESPRIT workplan has been adapted to specifically encourage a "Broadening of the use of microelectronics ...... and the rapid, effective industrial exploitation of microelectronics stimulated by ....."Take-Up actions"

Microelectronics has become characterised as a very pervasive enabling technology which creates the opportunity to deliver phenomenal product functionality improvements as well as steep and rapid price reductions. These characteristics are well illustrated by the rise of the desktop personal computer or the explosive growth of GSM in the area of mobile personal communications.

What matters for the European economy and consequently for welfare and employment is the value added by semiconductors to systems and the competitive edge they provide in a large variety of products ranging from communication systems, cars and consumer products through to industrial measurement, control and computers - indeed, a very broad spectrum of applications.

The key issue for Europe is to capitalise on these opportunities and to broaden the use of microelectronics in all industrial sectors. This is being achieved through what we call "Take-up" actions which bring together users and suppliers in close cooperation which enables them to mutually exploit their complementary capabilities. Strong user-supplier cooperation in the form of strategic partnerships create ideal conditions for high levels of innovation. The ESPRIT workprogramme provides an opportunity to pursue and achieve these objectives.

The topics highlighted in the ESPRIT workprogramme provide an opportunity to European semiconductor companies to build on the strengths of Europe's electronic systems industries. Developing, intensifying and exploiting complementary user-supplier relationships in application driven R&D projects is beneficial to both parties in terms of deepening understanding, and lowering risk and costs. The partners are also encouraged to examine spin-off opportunities in markets outside the original application driver.

Work in these application driven R&D projects is called against key systems characteristics, such as :

Portability - low-power and wireless systems as required by mobile communications, consumer products, etc;

Performance - as required by telecommunications networks, multimedia, computing, etc;

Endurance - ruggedness and reliability - as required for automotive applications;

Measurement & Control - for home, building & industrial applications.

Projects in these areas typically bind together several technology threads - such as systems & chip design, process enhancements, packaging & interconnect systems - all motivated by the application driver and market requirements. As is increasingly the case, chips incorporate embedded microprocessors, and projects are able to draw on the results of the ESPRIT Open Microprocessor Initiative (OMI) which has established a European based embedded RISC processor capability based on ARM, Transputer and Spark, amongst others.

Within the TCS domain, we have launched around 20 user-driven projects in the past 12 months, in a very broad range of application sectors.

A second measure, designed to broaden the use of microelectronics through industrial take-up action is targeted to first users of a particular microelectronic technology. In 1995, ESPRIT launched a "First User Programme" known as FUSE. FUSE supports companies who propose to improve their existing products by the incorporation of microelectronics technologies which are new to them. Although the action is open to all sizes of company, it has been particularly well subscribed to, by the economically important small and medium business sector.

The FUSE programme, including its 26 Technology Transfer Nodes (TTNs) and its links to the training and prototype manufacturing services of EUROPRACTICE, provides its participants with simplified access to a broad range of competitive industrial electronic and microelectronics technologies.

In its first 12 months of operation, FUSE has received more than 1,400 applications for support from a very broad range of application sectors and all Union Member and affiliated states. After evaluation some 300 projects (typically 12 months duration ~100kecu support) have been selected for funding.

A third measure, also employed in ESPRIT's software and high-performance computing domains, aims to spread "Best Practice in Electronic Systems Design" (ESD) by supporting users who are committed to improve their design methodology and toolsets - and hence designer productivity. ESD participants can either improve their "know-how" and utilisation of existing commercial design tools, or they can participate in the validation of emerging prototype tools and methods. Participants are required to demonstrate, during the course of the work, that they have achieved a measurable improvement in the way that they design their products. These individual experiences are gathered together as case studies which can be passed on to those who are considering similar upgrades in their capability but are finding it difficult to quantify the expected impact, or return on investment. In the past 18 months more than 100 ESD proposals have been received - from which 50 specific experiments have been selected and launched. It is this level of collective experience which will be brought to a wider Community audience.

Projects in FUSE and ESD not only expose and test technology, but are also a part of an ongoing and significant process of "change management". Fiercely competitive companies have to take risk, have to try to work more efficiently, more accurately, and with greater cost effectiveness. European companies, in general, are slower to embrace new technology - slower to adapt to change - than their US or Japanese counterparts. Maybe this is a cultural trait, or a consequence of a different social or financial infrastructure, but it seems clear that there is a lot to be gained by helping companies overcome some of the perceived "barriers".

New measures in 1996

During 1996 a new opportunity was opened in a format called "co-operative research". This was specifically aimed at electronic systems design and in particular to "fill-in" gaps in terms of offerings from commercial sources. ESD co-operative research caters for two or more users who have identified specific design needs. In this scheme the users are encouraged to outsource the development of solutions to an external organisation - a supplier. An interesting aspect is that ESPRIT, together with the users, co-finance the supplier. The financial commitment of the user brings objectivity and focus to the work. The users gain early access to tools and solutions and the external developer gains early market feedback and acceptance of the R&D results. The supplier is expected to use "best endeavours" to bring the results to a wider market.

Finally, I would like to introduce a completely new ESPRIT topic.

For more than a decade ESPRIT has supported R&D in design and test tools and methods. The projects which have been undertaken were very diverse and scattered. Consequently, it has been quite difficult to bring the results "to broad industrial use". Moreover, in only very few topics have specific centres of excellence or leadership emerged. After these reflections, it was concluded that a more thematic approach to design could have some specific benefits in the European context.

Hence, I would like to announce a new "Pilot Action in Low Power Design". As this is a pilot action it could be just one of number of similar initiatives built using the same concept.

The objectives of the action are :

The action will comprise of a co-ordinated cluster (perhaps 10-20) design experiments extending the state of the art and best practice.

The action will be managed by a co-ordinator who will have the responsibility for ensuring that the technical goals are established, adhered to, and that results are validated and brought to broad use. One or more companies can propose a design experiment alone, or with an institute/academic partner. In this way, normally sensitive IPR issues can be accommodated within the same thematic action. The overall goal is not to disseminate product-specific IPR but rather to accumulate and spread know-how in respect of techniques and methodologies.

The call for proposals for the pilot action was opened in September '96 and will close on 18th December 1996. Further information and guides for proposers can be downloaded from the ESPRIT World-Wide-Web pages <</esprit/src/lowpower.htm>>


I have briefly described a package of operational measures which have been flexibly constructed and adapted to ensure:

In its evolution, the workprogramme its topics and focus are the result of considerable industrial, academic and political consultation.

Just half a decade ago, European R&D in microelectronics, and related subjects, was being undertaken by a limited number of organisations and they were fighting to recover lost ground and to close the gap. Also, one could detect a certain resistance, or reluctance, amongst European users to take-up: new, unproved, next generation technological solutions. It is yet too early to claim that all of these difficulties have been overcome. However, on the evidence of the numbers of applicants now wanting to "get to grips" with new technologies, (FUSE for example), then perhaps a necessary change has been started.

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