This article was first published in CIE on May 2015

Having recently moved into a new premises, which is geared up for significant expansion, SWINDON Silicon Systems, based in Royal Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, appears to be heading for some exciting times ahead. CIE editor Joe Bush went to visit the company and sat down with new managing director Jerry Loraine and engineering manager Adrian McDonald to get the latest from the ASIC design, test and supply specialist.

SWINDON’s MD Jerry Loraine has been with the company for eight months and took over from former MD Geoff Hall in March of this year. “Geoff had done an excellent job of growing the business from relatively humble beginnings to a company that produces very high volumes of ASICs (most notably for tyre pressure monitoring systems – TPMS), and he put a lot of the resources in place that we have today, which gives us the capacity to test around two million chips per week,” commented Loraine.

With around 20 years’ experience in the fabless semiconductor industry, Loraine’s career path dovetailed appropriately with SWINDON’s ethos prior to joining the company. He continued, “The reason SWINDON interested me is that one of the major growth areas in the semiconductor market is mixed signal electronics, specifically in the area of MEMS. I had a wish list of things that I wanted to do and the technology footprint of this company matched that of which I wanted to work in. SWINDON conducts all its own design, development and production testing, which are the key areas where a fabless semiconductor company can create and add value, and can secure long term relationships. You will always need chips that interface with the real world – and it’s always a
technological challenge to meet what’s required – and that’s what makes it such an interesting company, so I was very glad to be offered the position.”

All under one roof

SWINDON, part of Schrader, was acquired by the world’s leading suppliers of sensing, electrical protection, control and power management, Netherlands-based Sensata Technologies, late last year. It certainly marked a step change for SWINDON as it allowed the company access to a much wider market – something that has been greeted with enthusiasm by Loraine. All of SWINDON’s ASIC design, testing and supply is undertaken at the Royal Wootton Bassett facility, and this is another feather in the company’s cap, as engineering manager, Adrian McDonald explained, “What SWINDON offers from an engineering point of view is that we supply the ASICS directly from here – and that’s quite exciting. There are not many ASIC manufacturers in the country who can say, “I can actually go down (to the test floor) and see my devices being tested.” That’s quite unusual as testing is mostly carried out in the Far East.

“Because of this tight integration, our employees really feel part of the product. That’s a very positive thing from an engineering perspective, and the ethos of
keeping production test on-site, rather than offshore, has been driven very much by the automotive market as we need to keep very tight control on quality.”

Loraine added, “We ship devices with quite a wide variety of applications and we’re constantly improving what we do in terms of accuracy, test times and yield improvement. That would be extremely expensive for us to manage if it were conducted by a third party and not as efficient. The overhead cost and reduced efficiency we would see from outsourcing what we do here would not make economic sense. Doing our own production testing is added value for us and you do have to look at the true cost of manufacturing offshore in terms of management. Whilst the manufacturing in Asia is an option and you can find some really good quality, it doesn’t fit every business model.

“In terms of ASIC testing, we spend a vast amount of effort writing the test programs to ensure we can maintain the highest quality of the product that we ship while at the same time minimising the test time. The longer it takes the more expensive is the depreciation per device shipped. So our main focus is on hitting the quality but optimising the cost.”

What sets SWINDON apart?

“What sets us apart is that we are global leaders in the design and supply of mixed signal ASICs integrated with calibrated pressure/temperature MEMs sensors, that we deliver in high volume into the automotive market, which is one of our key technological strengths. On the design side all of our ASICs are analogue with relatively small amounts of digital circuits but, as in the case of TPMS, typically operate at nanoamp levels to conserve battery power. So two strengths we have are a) having chips using extremely low power, and b) developing analogue devices that can survive the high voltages and surges that are necessary in industrial control applications. We are seeing more opportunities in this area.”

Challenges

In a rapidly evolving market, customers are constantly driving towards increased functionality, whilst using less power in a smaller space. McDonald continues. “The difficulties in our market are being able to produce accurate, precise analogue circuitry at low power. In the tyre pressure monitoring arena, Jerry has talked about nanoamp power consumption, although even when you have wires (where you can afford to take a bit more power), there’s always a demand to reduce the power consumption. So we’re up against the requirements to produce a 14bit ADC with a 35V supply, plus some signal processing, but which mustn’t take more than a milliamp, and that’s quite a difficult combination. If you buy a set of standard parts you will certainly be able to get the function, although to get the right power consumption is very difficult.

“The other technological challenge that we have in the industrial sector specifically is the requirement to have EMC robustness. Typically if you’re building a system then you’ll see that designers will put surge protectors outside of their chips and they’ll put capacitors all over the place to divert currents. Well, that costs money and our customers are always asking us ‘can we have it smaller, can we have it cheaper and can it take less power’, so one of our main drivers is to integrate as much as possible and make the chip itself robust as to reduce the cost of external components. Building all these things into a single ASIC is a real challenge – they’re not problems that are unique to us, although they are quite niche as there are relatively few companies that can provide that sort of integration on their devices.”

McDonald continued, “We’re seeing more functionality per milliwatt and more functionality per dollar that gets spent on integrated circuits, so functionality is increasing and power consumption is constantly decreasing. If your power is higher then you either have to have a thicker copper wire (which weighs more and costs more), or you have to have a bigger battery which also typically costs more. So there’s a constant pressure on us to get the power down, get the functionality up and make the chips more rugged.”

The next step

One of the main things that strikes you whilst walking around SWINDON’s premises at Royal Wootton Bassett is that the company clearly moved into its new home with expansion in mind. Both in terms of personnel and production and test space, the facility is primed and ready to go to the next level. Loraine concluded, “The outlook is very positive. I’d like to grow the company substantially over the next five years by building on our 35 years in ASIC design. Being part of Sensata will open up new markets for our ASICs. It means that not only can we develop further our automotive pressure sensing expertise, we can also transfer our knowledge and experience of MEMs sensors and micro-power solutions into wider applications such as factory automation, HVAC, industrial process control and remote sensing.

This article was first published in CIE on May 2015

Contact:
Richard Mount, Director of Sales & Marketing
Tel: +44 (0) 1793 649 417
Email: richard.mount@swindonsilicon.co.uk

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