Many people are apt to misinterpret the phrase "design work". Their thoughts turn immediately to concepts of creativity, innovation and cutting-edge styles, and they overlook the routine and sometimes repetitive aspects that make any job a job. Anyone planning a career in integrated circuit (IC) design should avoid this mistake, since hard work is one of the key things expected of all recruits from day one.
According to Ted Kok, chief technical consultant of Promax Technology (Hong Kong) Ltd, integrated circuit designers normally start out as engineering trainees. In the first twelve months or so they concentrate on learning about materials and design tools and are only allowed to carry out basic implementation work. Therefore, he says, it is important for new recruits to have patience and to knuckle down to some routine tasks, which are nevertheless essential preparation for what comes later.
As junior engineers pick up the necessary knowledge and expertise, they get more involved in every aspect of the R&D process. After about three or four years, they are expected to contribute original ideas and put forward brand-new design concepts. That, says Dr Kok, is the most rewarding experience for any engineer, especially if they invent technology that can be patented and is also commonly used by the public.
At that stage, besides having responsibilities for management and training, a senior engineer will also need to liaise closely with wafer fabrication plants and other external partners which help the circuit developer turn IC designs into actual products.
There are no shortcuts to learning or gaining experience
Digital, analogue and mixed signal are the three main types of IC. In each case, the design of the circuit is the biggest challenge and, according to Dr Kok, involves real "brain work".
A broad understanding of basic electronics is vital and, in order to find inspiration, engineers must do extensive research and be fully up-to-date with any recent advances in their field. In addition, they have to be particularly careful not to infringe on the intellectual property rights of others. "There are no shortcuts to learning or gaining experience," says Dr Kok, "but when you have successfully completed one design, it will undoubtedly help you with the next."
As in any creative work, there is an element of "magic" in designing circuits. A spark of genius is needed, enabling an engineer to see things from a new perspective or develop an idea in an innovative way. After coming up with a concept, the next practical step is to set down and check the design with the appropriate software and then to carry out simulations, verify the results and revise the original design if necessary. The final stage is to create the layout for fabrication. When the prototype IC is produced, further electrical tests are done and modifications made until everything works as required.
As an example, Dr Kok mentions that the entire cycle for developing a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor usually takes two to three months. It involves up to five engineers and will include six weeks for fabrication.
The outlook for IC technology and the overall electronics industry in Greater China is definitely promising. "As more than half of the world's consumer electronics are now produced in the region, there is huge demand for CMOS image sensors," Dr Kok notes. With IC components being used in a wide range of "electronic vision products", such as digital cameras, camcorders, mobile phones and surveillance systems, there will be no shortage of work.
He also predicts the semiconductor sector will remain profitable, and that is one of the reasons he left a position as a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to join Promax. The company was established last year to specialise in CMOS image sensor research and development. Dr Kok brought with him over ten years' previous experience in semiconductors, circuit design and signal processing, having worked for several multinationals including Sony US Research Laboratory.
He believes that, unfortunately, there is insufficient talent in Hong Kong to support the growth of the industry and that local universities provide only limited resources and training for IC design. Even students who do have the appropriate training have usually had limited exposure to other fields, such as digital signal processing, multimedia and digital controls, all of which are required to understand IC design applications.
As a result, Promax is recruiting more engineers from overseas. Still though they are seeing a high turnover rate. This is partly because the brand name appeal of some of the larger corporations is able to attract experienced staff and fresh graduates. Despite that, says Dr Kok, smaller start-ups usually offer better opportunities for learning and growth as well as higher salaries.
Since the industry continues to grow, talented IC designers are much in demand for jobs in Hong Kong and mainland China. However, Dr Kok points out that the difference in salaries can be as much as 50 per cent. As a result, relatively few Hong Kong engineers consider moving north, other than for senior management positions which offer good exposure and remuneration comparable to Hong Kong.
Furthermore, it is felt that China needs to establish better protection of intellectual property rights in order to foster IC design plus R&D in general.