Careers in Semiconductor Chip Design

Namrta Sharma
Sr. Principal Solutions Engineer
Automatic Summary

A Glimpse into the World of Semiconductor Chip Design at Women Tech Global Conference 2023

Are you curious about careers in semiconductor chip design? Are you pursuing engineering or considering a career switch to this fascinating field? If so, this article delves into a presentation given at the Women Tech Global Conference 2023 hosted by Namrata Sharma, a seasoned analog design expert with over 18 years of experience in semiconductor chip design.

About the Presenter

Namrata Sharma is an alumna of it, Delhi and GB Pan University, India. Her vast experience in this field has provided her with keen insights that she generously shared during the conference. A quick disclaimer, however: all data presented in the session is based on her understanding and from public resources data. They do not represent the views of her current or previous employers.

Why should you consider semiconductor chips as a career?

Semiconductor chips are integral to our daily lives, impacting everything from our mobile phones and laptops to medical devices and cars. Consequently, the market size of all electronic semiconductor chip components combined is about $550 billion. This lucrative figure translates to countless career opportunities waiting to be explored in the vast semiconductor ecosystem.

Two Major Components of Semiconductor Ecosystem

The semiconductor ecosystem consists of two major components: the design house and the foundry. The design house designs the components needed by the market - such as processors, memories, or SOC's, while the foundry manufactures these designs. Major role players in this ecosystem include S MC Intel Samsung, CS M IC, Global Foundries, and more.

What happens at a Semiconductor Foundry?

The semiconductor life cycle commences with a silicon crystal, which progresses through a series of fascinating steps, culminating in the production of a semiconductor chip. This process involves a plethora of jobs ranging from material science, physics, chemical engineering, to factory operations and assembly line work.

Unpacking the Intricacies of Semiconductor Design

Semiconductor design is another vast area filled with a myriad of opportunities. The procedure commences with a system level design, followed by package level design, and finally, the chip level design. The chip level design is particularly detailed, divided largely into analog and digital design.

Analog and Digital Design

Analog design focuses on the shape of the signal while digital design centres on the binary values—zero and one. Digital systems scale well with technology, which makes them versatile, while the robustness of analog systems derives from their dependency on the modelling of electronic components.

However, newer technology nodes that have a tendency to shrink the size associated with operations veer more towards digital operations—a factor that makes analog components more challenging—and exciting—to design in smaller nodes.

Career Opportunities in the Semiconductor Ecosystem

The vast semiconductor ecosystem comprises not only design houses and manufacturing units but also tool developers, equipment providers, testers, and field engineers. The semiconductor field, therefore, offers a plethora of career choices across many areas.

The Closing Note

Semiconductors indeed offer a phenomenal career opportunity as confirmed by Steve Jobs, who noted that semiconductors require extraordinary people who are happy to collaborate to create something remarkable, like building an airplane or making a stunning sculpture.

Whether you're an electronics engineer, a computer science graduate, or a student looking to find their passion, the semiconductor field offers an impressive array of opportunities to grow and succeed.

So, consider diving into the world of semiconductors, where you can be part of the extraordinary people creating magnificent things that truly shape our world.

Video Transcription

Come to the Women Tech Global Conference uh 2023 in the next 20 minutes. We'll go through careers in semiconductor chip design. Hello, I'm your host. My name is Namrata Sharma. I'm an analog design expert. I'm an alumna of it, Delhi and GB Pan University, India.I have more than 18 years of experience in semiconductor chip design. Uh I think students who are pursuing their uh engineering will find this very useful even for people who want to change fields from adjacent fields will find this useful. So let's get started. Uh Before we start, uh a quick disclaimer that all data presented in this session is based upon my understanding and from public resources data, they do not represent views of my present employer or previous employers. So, semiconductor chips are everywhere these days, right?

Uh They can be uh more on your face like your mobile phone or your connected home or your car keys or your laptops. But um there are many other places, for example, the servers which store your data or the networking service through which your data is actually routed and comes to you or it can be in the medical devices or it can be in the satellites or uh these days, the ever increasing automotive market for semiconductors where the cars are becoming mini machines uh of electronics.

So um so if it, if they're everywhere, then the market size must be huge, right? So, so the market size of all the electronic semiconductor chip components put together is about $550 billion. It can keep waiting a little bit, but that's an average number. So, uh so you can think that uh because the market size is so huge, there are many uh many opportunities. So let's look into the um semiconductor ecosystem on uh what uh what other things um that we will be looking at in this presentation. So there are two major components of a semiconductor ecosystem. Uh One is the design house that actually designs the component that is needed by the market. And the other is the one that manufactures it and we call it the foundry. So the design house can be uh designing processors or memories or SO CS or analog components. And uh the manufacturing or the foundry will take the designs from these design houses and they will print it and give it back uh so that the O EMS or the um the customers can use it. So there are many uh big names if you want to find out carriers in these, there are uh the S MC Intel Samsung um CS M IC, global foundries, et cetera. Um And, and there are many other foundries as well.

Uh So let's look into uh what happens on um in a semiconductor foundry. So, uh semiconductor life cycle starts uh with a silicon crystal. So the silicon crystal is actually molten and we put a seed in that so that we find one particular crystal structure and we pull this uh seed slowly out of that molten structure and you get very, very highly pure silicon crystal. Uh and these silicon rods are then sliced into uh silicon plates, which we call wafer, they are polished and they are, they're grounded to one particular thickness of the wafer. And then they are sent to the foundry or the manufacturing unit. Now, the foundry is where uh all of the chip fabrication happens. So we get the wafer, the foundry puts a photo resist on top of the wafer and on this wafer, we want to print something. So what is that thing that is to be printed? So if you let me put the pointer, so if uh if you see that there's a mask in here, so this is like a form of a stencil. And uh the design house has to actually give design in a way that can be made into this mask. And light, a very precise light is shown through this mask. And we put a lens to further uh reduce of to further increase the focus of the light and this is printed on, on the wafer.

Uh now, uh based on this um um based on this mask, various processes can be carried out on this. It can be itching, deposition ionization, buttering, and we'll do polishing and annealing uh at various steps. So, um and then this forms one cycle of one layer. Then uh we put uh printing on this mask uh on, on this wafer again and again, after multiple iterations, you actually get the wafer and the wafer looks like this. Uh Then we do a little uh testing on this wafer which is called Wafer level testing. And then these are sliced into uh various um I CS and then it is packaged into whatever form factor is required and then they are tested before they are sent to the O EMS and that completes the silicon fabrication life cycle. So if I go back to the fabrication unit, right? So what kind of jobs would you expect in this? So we need material sciences uh experts, we need physics experts, we need chemical engineers because a lot of chemicals are uh actually put on this wafer on, on these various stages that happen. Uh you need yield analysis. So you need statistics engineers, you need electronics engineers who can actually make a few circuits on this um on, on these wafers and they can test them out before actual customers or the design houses use the manufacturing unit. And then in the end, this is a factory line.

So you need factory operations, you need assembly line workers and so on. So, chip fabrication industry itself offers a lot of a lot of jobs. Uh now uh let's go to the design uh design houses. So what happens in semiconductor design? What kind of shops can you expect in that? So semiconductor design uh broadly weak going from top to down can start from a system level design where you actually check uh whether the system that you are designing or the chip that you are designing can operate well with the environment where it will be put in. Or it can also be that the chip, it's the that the uh that the part itself might contain many I CS inside. And you want to find out whether they will work together with, with uh each other or there could be hardware components and software components or phone ware components. And you want to find out whether all of this will work together. Uh Finally, so all of these uh part, all of these uh will happen during system level design. So basically we check the interoperability at that point of time. Uh Next, we'll go to the package level design.

So the package level uh design started with uh just doing signal integrity of the components. So package if you see is the window of the IC to the external world. Uh So all the signals that are traveling between the IC and the external world, they have to be good in quality. And that quality check is called signal integrity. So we will need signal integrity engineers which are basically electrical or electronics engineers. Then uh an increasing issue with packages is the thermal power management because the chips that we are designing are having a lot of components, a lot of operations working at very high speed. So a byproduct of all these operations is heat and that has to be dissipated. It could not sit on top of the IC otherwise it will become less and less reliable. So we need to let the heat go somehow. So the thermal power management is also a very big um uh problem that needs to be solved and it needs innovative solutions. The third thing is 3D integration that is driving package level design or 2.5 D integration. So one package can have multiple I CS inside them and how you will integrate all these I CS, whether it is in the 3D track structure or they're laid down on one substrate and then you put various I CS together, uh howsoever you lay them out, you need to integrate them.

And that also can become part of the package level design. The third thing is the chip level design. So the chip level design is the actual design that is fabricated in, in the foundry as we saw it. Uh So the output of this chip level design should be something which can produce that mask if you remember. So we can also call it a stencil if you want. So, uh broadly, you can buy for a level design into analog design and digital design. Although the boundaries are not so clear and a lot of custom design is also done in in analog design way. Uh uh The custom digital is also done in analog design way. Um But for understanding, we'll just stick to analog and digital. So analog uh is something um in which we care about uh the shape of the signal, how the signal is with uh is changing with respect to time. Uh how small or big is the signal. So basically, in anything that you worry about the shape of the signal is analog. So, and in digital, uh we don't really care about the shape of the signal. All we care about is zeros and ones. So the output of that digital system which converts analog to digital should be zero and one. So binary operations is what we want to do on top of the data that we get. So digital signals are very clear.

So if anything is, let's say I, I draw a line in between here, I say anything below this line is zero. Anything above this line is one. So very easily I can find out 01. Even if the signal moves down a little bit, I will still say it's a one. And even if the signal moves up a little bit, I'll still say it's a one, it's a zero. Sorry. So this is very noise sensitive circuit. However, in analog, we actually care about the value of the signal here. So if this, if there is a little bit of noise on top of the signal, we will find ways to actually remove that noise or uh filter out that noise or uh or or create ways in which you the noise does not get into the system. So these signals, analog uh signals are very noise sensitive and they have in high effort to design because digital systems, once you create the binary values out of this, uh you can do operations in a in a digital way and you can do complex operations. You can, you can have uh a very uh big digital systems and it scales also very well with technology.

So once you, once you write a code in your in for the digital components, once you know what operations are to be carried out, if you design it in one micrometer technology or a smaller technology, not, let's say 45 nanometer technology, you may not need to change the design a lot.

However, in analog systems, they are very particular about how the electronic components are behaving. So they are dependent on the on the modeling of the electronic components like the resistors, the krait, the transistors et cetera. And therefore, with each technology node where the model files change for these components, these have to be redesigned. The last point that I want to mention is that the newer technology notes which are becoming smaller and smaller. So Moore's law is still working, right. So we are having more and more confidence every year uh and more and more operations happening on the chip every year. So um the newer technologies and uh when, when the foundries are trying to shrink the area that are required to do some operations, uh they uh they want to do more and more digital operations and uh they might be caring less about analog operations. So the analog operations, they might not want the voltage levels to fall too much, but the digital operations say yes, yes, why not? Please let the voltage level fall our power dissipation reduce. So um so analog components might be more difficult to design in, in smaller notes.

Uh And that is where the fun part is. You get a lot of challenges and a lot of innovations that need to be done in this analog field every year. So, uh so now we understand that we need uh electronics engineers here and we need a computer science graduates here uh who can actually be build these systems. So, so in the analog uh design, the electronic engineer will uh get the specs, he will create a circuit like this. So these are basically just models, but you cannot not fabricate this. You'll simulate this, find out if it's functionally working and find out whether the reliability is fine because these days uh the aging of the transistor is also an uh concern. Also, the variation of, of components can be uh problematic for a components and they need to be uh precisely simulated. So a lot of simulations happen at the circuit level, but this cannot be sent to the foundry. Ultimately, you need to lay it out. So the layout engineer takes the schematic and lays it out uh into a form which can be taken by the foundry. And so he has to make sure that this layout adheres to all the rules that are published by the Foundry for that particular technology role.

There are other checks also like he needs to check whether the electro migration will work, whether the IR drops are fine. But ultimately, he has to check that all the rules are being done in digital design. Uh In the end, the output has to be the layout because that is what the foundry needs. But the design uh starts with writing a code and that code is mapped to a certain set of standard cells that have already been created. So for example, if we want to do an and operation between two component, between two signals, uh I would already have an ant kit which has been uh created in the standard cell library. So the digital design engineer follows a different flow uh than the analog engineers. Now to uh to add more jobs into the semiconductor ecosystem. If you see the design, we discuss the design house and the manufacturing house. But to support the design house, we need somebody uh who can create the tools to do all these simulations and all these checks. And these are the companies and they typically need people who can code and understand the electronics as well. Uh The manufacturing house needs the equipment, for example, the light that we want to shine, it has to be highly precise uh how to create that light can be, uh can be an equipment. Uh the chemicals that we use.

Uh somebody needs to provide those the very first need to be provided from outside. And after the manufacturing is done, you need to do testing, you need to do um uh support at the field. So you need a lot of field engineers. Uh And that is true for any product that you will do. So, semiconductors offers a lot of career choices over wide areas for people who want to explore this option. It has kept me going for a long uh uh for a lot of years. And uh I said by Steve jobs um that semiconductors is a good career then because he says that you must find extraordinary people to work in semiconductors because you want a lot of people to work together uh to create something like a semiconductor part. So with that, uh I would uh stop my presentation and I'll open to any questions in case there are uh there are any questions looks like I've been pretty clear. So um I leave everybody with this thought. Uh that semiconductor is a great career uh to have and I'll just read the uh the quote by Steve Jobs. Some people can do one thing magnificently like Michelangelo and others make things like semiconductors or build 747 airplanes. That type of work requires legions of people in order to do things well, that can't be done by one person. You must find extraordinary people. Thank you so much for your time. Have a great day.