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Great leap

Turn your cell phone over and open the back. Beneath the narrow slot where the SIM card sits, there's a bright green plate. On the other side of that plate lies the most important part of your cell phone: the semiconductor, a cell phone's version of a brain. Anika Gupta writes.

delhi Updated: Jul 16, 2010 00:41 IST
Anika Gupta

Turn your cell phone over and open the back. Beneath the narrow slot where the SIM card sits, there's a bright green plate. On the other side of that plate lies the most important part of your cell phone: the semiconductor, a cell phone's version of a brain.

Every time you use your phone - to make a call, stream music, or surf the Net - a billion tiny switches inside this brain flicker on and off. The patterns they create while flickering are interpreted and transmitted to the phone's parts, coordinating all the phone's actions. But unlike a human brain, a cell phone's brain is a tiny flake of white plastic, the size of a fingernail or smaller.

Unlike the human brain, the most powerful modern semiconductors are a hundred times smaller than the semiconductors of a generation ago. They are more powerful than the semiconductor that landed the first man on the moon, half a century ago.

And, most importantly, unlike the human brain, the semiconductor was designed and manufactured by humans, and every electronic device on earth contains at least one.

Smaller, faster
"The simpler an electronics device seems to be, the more complicated the engineering process that created it," says Jaswinder Ahuja (46).

Ahuja is managing director of Cadence Design Systems India, the Indian branch of Cadence Design Systems.

Cadence is the world's leading electronics design automation (EDA) company. EDA is a niche industry.

EDA companies design the software that allows the creators of electronic devices to make specialised chips. Because of their software, the chips of today are faster and smaller and use less power than the chips of the past. They are also cheaper.

In fact, over the past 50 years, chips have become so cheap that individual customers have discovered them. Companies churn out smartphones, digital cameras, and portable music devices - made for individuals, rather than corporations.

"Nowadays, more than half of the business is people who make consumer electronics," says Ahuja. Ten years ago, he says, it was all heavy industries like aerospace.

The Kindle Story
In October 2009, the online mega-retailer Amazon.com announced that it planned to launch a new edition of its best-selling Kindle, its tablet reader for electronic books. The new and improved Kindle could store hundreds of files and run for two weeks on a single charge.

The Kindle's marathon battery life came about because of a new and improved chip, designed in India by Freescale Semiconductor Private Limited, using Cadence software.

"Once you download a book, the Kindle has to ensure that your copy is legal," says Ganesh Guruswamy (44), vice-president and country manager for Freescale Semiconductors India.

The engineers used a new process known as "System on Chip" to bring all these requirements together.

They integrated the Kindle 2's complex devices onto the chip itself, cutting the amount of power these devices consume.

Chips of the future
Today's consumers want tiny chips that can do a lot of things at once, and still fit in a wallet or purse. A lot of the technical development falls to engineers in the companies that make electronic devices, but a significant amount of it is also done at Cadence.

Cadence's software creates a model of a semiconductor, much like architectural software plots out a house, with all its wiring and support beams. The engineers can then use the computer model to test how the proposed semiconductor will hold up in the real world.

Over the last 20 years, the semiconductor industry has grown from a few small design centres to a highly competitive market, with estimated revenues of $7.59 billion in 2010.

For Cadence, their two-decade-old Indian R&D team is a critical part of their success. In 1989, Cadence merged with Gateway Design Automation Corporation, a former competitor.

As part of the deal Cadence acquired Gateway's facility in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. They also acquired 14 engineers, most of them recent college graduates born in India but educated in the United States. These engineers were Gateway's fledgling R&D division.

"When they acquired the engineers, that was a happy accident," says Ahuja.

"But once they got us, they had to figure out what to do with us."

This was decades before the BPO boom. At the time, Cadence was happy to practice labor arbitrage - to pay their Indian engineers a fraction of an American salary, for the same work. The Indian engineering team grew from 14 to 70. But the engineers in the R&D branch were dissatisfied being the organisation's cheap brains.

"It takes years to build up domain expertise in this field," says Ahuja. "At the time, we wanted to deliver quality, productivity and predictability."

In those early years, the Cadence India team worked on only one part of the company's software. Over time, corporate managers in the company's San Jose, California, headquarters handed them more and more responsibility.

Now, says Ahuja, there are many parts of the company's software that are handled exclusively by the offices in Noida.

Cadence India's R&D division employs nearly 650 engineers, and has a budget in excess of $20 million. Almost 90 per cent of Cadence's clients use software that was developed in some part by Cadence's Indian design team.

"Almost all electronic devices in the market today have been touched in some way by our software," says Ahuja.

The chips of the future have already exceeded the chips of the past.

Already, carbon-conscious clients are working on chips that can process a million tasks while using almost zero energy. Others, aware of the inequality in global health care, are creating chips for portable medical devices that can perform at high temperatures on an erratic power supply.

But Ahuja, an engineer who still remembers trying to prove his worth to the Cadence global bosses 20 years ago, knows that all this is probable, and more.

"The chips of the future are going to be a hundred times more powerful than the chips of today," he says.

"They will have to be."

With inputs from Aman Sethi

(Every Friday, this series chronicles technological innovation and India's rise as a global R&D hub. Read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/innovation)