Assembly / placement cost versus component cost and custom integrated circuits

While the initial reason for designing a semi-custom or custom IC is to reduce cost (as well as maybe size and power consumption), for products manufactured in the UK or Europe even an integrated circuit costing more than the parts it replaces can produce a cost saving!  The simple reason is that components can cost more to place than the cost of the components themselves.

Often companies are paying 5p to place a 2p component.  By the time you have a few dozen components, even cheap ones, the cost can be significant.  For example, a dozen transistors and two dozen resistors will probably cost less than £1.  However the cost of placing them on the board might be nearer  £2 bring the total cost to £3.  Replacing it all with a custom or semi-custom IC could halve the total cost, even if the chip cost more than the individual components.

An example of a simple IC is shown below.  This Zetex 700 series array provides automatic control of LED brightness over a 1400:1 range with just three external components – a photodiode, LED and capacitor.  Additionally, the peak LED current can be set with one time programming (OTP) by on-chip fuses.  The circuit can operate at  just 1µA total current with the LED illuminated at low duty cycles.  A shutdown mode drops the current to leakage values.

Two control pins allow the chip to be controlled using a digital circuit or microcontroller to further extend the brightness operating range and to provide manual brightness operation and remote shutdown.

All of this could be done with discrete circuitry but the cost would be considerably higher than the semi-custom IC even in modest quantities.

If you want to know more, visit my web site Key Design Electronics Ltd.

LED Driver Semi-Custom IC

Do custom ICs (ASICs) really have to cost $500k to $1M to prototype? (£300k to £600k)

If I ever needed a reason why companies are reluctant to consider custom ICs the answer was in this weeks CIE magazine. I would like to link to it but the only way I could find it online was through an idiotic Flash, page turning,  version which you cannot link to. (side note – am I the only person who would much rather flick through a pdf than wait for some pointless, oversized animated page turning Flash monster which takes ages to load?). It is on page 32 of the February 2011 edition at CIE if anyone wants to read it.

It says that the cost of prototyping an ASIC has now come down to as little as $500k!  I have designed many ASICs for a fraction of that price (in fact, all of them).  OK, that aren’t on 300mm wafers using 40nm (but the article says that would cost $2M to $3M), but they are useful, cost effective solutions to companies who don’t need the smallest geometries.  As I design analogue and mixed signal ICs usually with less than 10k gates and often fewer, older technologies like 1µm and 0.35um can be cost effective as well as Zetex bipolar arrays.  Non-recurring engineering charges (NRE) can be tiny compared to the latest nano-metre technologies.

If anyone wants to know more, have a look at my web site KDEL or leave a comment or ask a question – I would be happy to get on my soapboax again and explain how you can get a chip done for as little as a tenth of those costs.

Bugs, Birds and Butterflies (& moths)

Macro photographs show levels of detail that can be missed by the naked eye.

Firebug - Pyrrhocoris apterus

Snipe - Gallinago gallinago

Angle Shades moth emerging - Phlogophora meticulosa

Puch MS50D, Kawasaki KR1S and BMW K1200RS

What do all these machines have in common?  I have owned each of them, as well as a few others.  The BMW K1200RS is a gorgeous machine and the reason for my ID – keith1200rs.  Before buying one I joined a forum about them and chose that username.  It has stuck ever since.

BMW K1200RS

It was a great bike but I just didn’t use it enough to make it worthwhile keeping it.  The only complaint with it was the weight, but for such a heavy bike it handled beautifully and if you need a bike to spend all day on and cover a lot of miles, it would be high on my list.

Earlier (interesting) bikes of mine were the Kawasaki KR1S.  Yet another bike with my initials in it, it was the opposite of the BMW – tiny, light and highly tuned.  Fantastic fun, but a bit “manic”.  Excuse the clash of colours!

Kawasaki KR1S

The first “motorised bicycle” I bought was a moped.  A Puch MS50D.  It was actually used quite a lot as my main means of transport including an epic Hull to York to Scarborough and back journey one day.

Samba drumming on the drumkit

My drum teacher introduced me to samba drumming as a way of improving four limb independence.  I came across Cintia Orlandi’s posts on a Yahoo drumming group which has some good lessons on samba drumming on the drum kit.  You can see her site here (click on picture):

See her other videos on YouTube Cintia Orlandi

I am a sucker for unusual drumming or different versions of classic songs.  Here are three guitarists with a tractor playing Sweet Georgia Brown.

Tunny Fishing, Scarborough 1949

Scarborough had a strong fishing industry in the past.  Some of that was tunny fishing.  Here is more information: Tunny fishing in Scarborough in the 1930’s

The picture above was taken by Dennis Raper.  It shows Mr Weatherley with four tunny caught during the early hours of 25th August 1949.

The picture below is from 16th September 1949 and shows Mr Lewis of Corby with the heaviest caught in British waters up to that date (852lbs).  On the right is Tom Pashby – the skipper of the coble “Good Cheer”.  Again, taken by my father Dennis Raper.

Promoter, Supporter, Analyst or Controller?

Yet another course I went on a long time ago (I didn’t go on many but at least some of them were interesting ;)) along with the rest of the R&D team was aimed to promote team working by helping people understand their personality and that of their colleagues. By use of questionnaires filled in by people who knew you well, your personality was categorised as one of Promoter, Supporter, Analyst or Controller and your flexibility. The personality was not black and white but a “point” on a square divided up in to the four personalities. I was on the fence between promoter/controller, about halfway towards the centre.

The flexibility turned out to be very important. Your flexibility needs to make your personality “overlap” with the people you were working with. This was fascinating for a few particular combinations of people. Why the R&D director and food scientist struggled to get on, for example. They were diagonally opposite on the square and with very low flexibility.

I was high flexibility, which I think explains why I manage to work well with most people. Even better, having been on the course and found out my [new] boss was an analyst it made me able to appreciate what he needed to keep him happy which made our working relationship a lot better.

If you search for “Promoter Supporter Analyst Controller” you will find it is quite a common categorisation. This site shows the Behavioural Characteristics and related information. I also like this comparison of Personality Types . I am not sure if the collumns directly relate to one another, but the comparison with Tigger, Pooh, Rabbit and Eeyore is interesting! It seems that the categorisation of personalities goes back at least as far as Hippocrates & Plato in 370BC so it is nothing new.

Lilla Cross, Mountain Biking, Nutrition & Hydration

Lilla Cross, North York Moors

I apologize for the poor quality photograph.  When you forget your camera you either use your mobile phone or get not photo.  In the summer I like to ride up there.  It is a local high point (although the nearby trig point is higher).  Here is some information about Lilla Cross.

It is long climb to get there and as I always ride from home I have a couple of other steep hills to do before starting the long slog up there.  It is so peaceful, even in the height of summer.  The Lyke Wake Walk passes it so occasionally you see some people.

Hydration

In summer I can drink around 1 litre an hour when cycling, particularly when temperatures get to 30°C.  I normally ride with weak, original Ribena in my 3 litre Camelbak.  However, I have found that it is impossible to keep hydrated without extra help.  After trying several products (including some awful “home made” concoctions) I settled on Nuun tablets added to my Ribena.  They are flavoured tables with salt and minerals for adding to your drinks.  As well as replenishing your lost salt they also aid absorption of the water – the main problem had with staying hydrated.

However, they are expensive.  A summer morning ride could cost me £3 in Nuun tablets.  So, now I use Elete which seems to work and costs a fraction of the price.

Nutrition

The “original” Ribena was something I have used for many years because it contains real sugar instead of artificial sweetener.  I did find out that it is a particularly useful source of energy as well.  On a couple of occasions I set off on rides with just plain water and had to stop for something to eat after half an hour or so!  I never have that problem when I have Ribena, so the sugar is obviously providing a small amount of energy.

When I am peckish on a ride I like Jordans Frusli Bars – not too big and a good mix of complex carbohydrates with some sugar.  While I have tried so called “sports drinks” they seem to make me want to throw up.

For a good bike ralated web site, have a look at Bike Radar.

The bike, by the way, is a Specialized Rockhopper FSR XC 2003.  I have done nearly 10,000 miles on it now and there isn’t much that hasn’t been changed (in some cases, changed several times).  It was an import from Bike Scene at a time when Specialized didn’t sell any suspension bikes in the UK below £1300.  This cost considerably less 🙂

I try to ride all year, not letting a bit of snow put me off.

Near Staintondale

Scarborough Marina 2008

I think a storm is coming

To follow the serious post, a photo of Scarborough.  This is using the Panasonic LX2 which has now been superseded but I particularly like the fact that it is by default a panoramic format camera (16:9).  I really just wanted a camera with a good lens and good manual controls but since one of my main interests is landscape and scenery the panoramic mode is used more than the standard 3:2 format I was used to.

Formal Problem Analysis and Problem Solving

I like to think I am good at problem solving – it can be quite a significant part of engineering.  I have been brought in by companies to help solve problems on several occasions and this can involve running a meeting with a number of people from different backgrounds all contributing to the discussion.

Many years ago I went on a course run by Kepner-Tregoe who still exist, although I don’t know how the courses have changed.  The course I went on covered Problem Analysis, Potential Probelm Analysis and Decision Making.  The Problem Analysis seemed the most interesting to me so I will just explain a bit about it.

It is really rather simple – a formal way of specifying the problem then trying to categorise what is and is not happening.  It covers what the problem is, where it is happening, when it happens and the extent of the problem.  In each case it is as important to define what is not happening as well as what is happening.  For example, if you have some IC failures and list which chips are failing, it is equally important to note the other devices in the product or on the PCB which aren’t failing.  That could be very useful when trying to decide if over-voltage of the power supply is causing a problem, for example.  If the problem chip is on the same supply as chips which don’t blow up, could it really be the power supply that is the problem?

Then you try to list the distinctions and changes in your list.  A distinction may be that different chips from different manufacturers have a different “absolute maximum” rating.  One example of this I came across was the failure of some Linear Technology chips.  It turned out that they were specified for 5V operation with 5.5V absolute maximum compared to a more normal 7V for most 5V chips.  A small, fast power supply switch-on glitch of around 7V was enough to blow them up.  A change may be something else that was changed around the same time the problem started!

From the analysis you try to decide on possible causes and test those against what you know.  Any which don’t fit with what is known about the problem are eliminated leaving some possible causes.  Then you need to devise a test to prove or eliminate any of the possible causes and take steps to verify it.

This is all a bit general and to a certain extent is what people who are good at problem solving do anyway, but hopefully gives you an idea of the benefit of a formalised method, which is to help organise your thoughts and communicate them with others.  A Problem Analysis Worksheet provides a layout for organising the information.