Why TI does MCU designs in Shanghai
Junko Yoshida 6/26/2012 2:01 AM EDT
Multinational chip companies who’ve consigned some of their design work to China tend to do so quietly; but a few leading companies are clearly making deeper inroads in China, and they’re not especially shy about it.
SHANGHAI – Multinational chip companies who’ve consigned some of their design work to China tend to do so as quietly as possible; but a few leading companies are clearly making deeper inroads in China, and they’re not especially shy about it.
Texas Instruments is a good example.
Its newest MCU design center based in Shanghai recently saw its first locally designed device successfully taped out.
While TI is not disclosing the size of its team, Scott Roller, vice president of TI Microcontrollers, in a recent interview with EE Times, described the MCU design center in Shanghai as “a sizeable team, with multiple designs going on.”
TI’s Shanghai-based MCU design center, whose operation started in early 2011, is the newest addition to the company’s three others worldwide.
They include design centers in Germany, Bangalore and Dallas.
It’s important to note that TI’s facility in China is not there just to support existing MCU products. Rather, it actually executes some MCU product line development from China.
“This is to develop MCUs – built in China for China,” said Roller.
The design center performs every job – ranging from sales, application developers to system and processor designers and application field engineers – necessary to do the design work in one place.
“We cover everything — from front to back end,” said Roller.
Scott Roller, vice president of microcontrollers at Texas Instruments
Why design in China?
Asked why design in China, Roller gave two straightforward reasons:
“First, you can move much faster.
Second, by designing it locally, there will be less room for misinterpretation.”
Although in theory, that may make sense, not every multinational has gone that far in their public commitment to designing in China.
Earlier this month at the Freescale Technology Forum in San Antonio, Texas, Gregg Lowe, Freescale Semiconductor’s new president and CEO, said the China market is in transition from a low-cost manufacturer of electronics products designed in the West to a true high-tech hub with the design capability to create products for its massive domestic market.
Chip vendors who want to sell products in China need a strong presence there, Lowe said. IC vendors don’t necessarily need to design their products in China, but they need to have applications engineers and system engineers right there to be successful there, Lowe said.
The fundamental difference in China, however, is China’s speed, said Allen Wu, president of ARM China. Design cycles for SoCs in China are generally much shorter, he observed.
“From design starts to tape-out, sometimes it takes only five to six months. [Local companies] make decisions much more quickly and they react to the market very fast.”
So, by the time multinationals finally reach a decision on a specific design back at headquarters, that may have already become irrelevant on the local Chinese market, explained Wu.
TI’s Roller stressed that TI did not build its MCU design center in China “because of the cost.” He said that engineering talents may be “a bit cheaper but you don’t really save money.”
TI has done this “because we want to design and produce products closer to where the demand is.”
One of the biggest MCU market segments TI is after in China is a smart metering device based on China’s state grid program.
TI taped out the first product and is sampling it now, said Roller.
“This is a huge opportunity for us.”
TI’s two key MCUs used in China include MSP430 ultra-low-power 16-bit microcontrollers and C2000 32-bit microcontrollers.
Asked which other multinationals are commanding a strong presence in the MCU market in China, Roller mentioned Freescale and Renesas.
Freescale – with a long history in China
– may be pulling back a little, TI’s Roller said. But he quickly added:
“That may change with the new CEO,” referring to Freescale’s Lowe who was ex-TI executive.
Freescale’s Lowe, while at TI, most recently led the Dallas-based company’s analog business.
TI has already established several analog design centers in China.
At the interview held at the Freescale Technology Forum, Freescale’s Lowe acknowledged "Design decisions will move."
He said, "You can’t just go to Silicon Valley anymore.
That’s still a very important place to go, but you need to be in all of the places where chips are being designed into systems to be close to customers and understand customer requirements."
— Additional reporting by Dylan McGrath
At a recent conference, I spoke with a colleague who talked about the high engineer turnover in China and Asia in general with his American company. Essentially, they would become trained and then immediately leave and go to a indigenous competitor. Then ultimately, you don’t get the business. Thus, it seems like someone like TI would be weary of such practice.
6/26/2012 4:54 PM EDT
Ahhh yes. I see this happening constantly. I guess the benefits are greater than the headaches……but for how long.
6/26/2012 5:59 PM EDT
Given China’s lack of IP protection and , I’d be VERY uncomfortable with a design center located there.
6/27/2012 12:47 AM EDT
This is a good point. I imagine Western companies doing design in China are bending over backwards to do everything possible to protect their IP. Still, it seems risky…
6/27/2012 4:03 AM EDT
Good point, selinz. How to retain good local employees is always a challenge for multinationals. Would TI be weary? You bet. But I don’t think they have much choice here.
Here’s what I’ve heard lately from a colleague of mine in Beijing:
He wrote to me:
"Actually, the job market of chip designers in China are still very strong. And engineers are easy to find another good salary job if they do not like the current salary, corporate culture or even the logo or slogan of a company."
6/26/2012 5:09 PM EDT
This has been the truth. From ADI to TI, the industry is going China which means they are building big teams in those countries. But do not be fooled, Americans visit those engineers monthly to help them.
You are correct, engineers in China and
Taiwan still lacks the disciplines of the west.
Quite often, their bosses push for cost-effectiveness at the expense of the few important details.
( one China,one Taiwan )
Taiwan is still in west side.
6/26/2012 6:06 PM EDT
quote: TI is after in China is a smart metering device based on China’s state grid program. TI taped out the first product and is sampling it now, said Roller. “This is a huge opportunity for us.” — you bet it’s a huge opportunity to control costs and precious resources; see PiperJaffray’s still useful industry report on those opportunities:
Yeah…after going through the report you’ve shared it makes much sense.
6/26/2012 9:04 PM EDT
No, Sanjig. Not directly.
However, I think what gets lost in the West often is China’s speed. Once they decide to do something, Chinese moves very fast. Do they cut corners? Some do, others don’t. But the biggest challenge facing the multinationals is how to keep up with this China speed, in my humble opinion.
In my experience the emphasis in China is on cost and speed. Quality, meeting specifications, test coverage, etc., not so much. And, keep in mind that it is pretty easy to tape out a spinoff product in 6 months, which is based on a family which took TI years to develop. Furthermore, a lot of those "quick" products developed in China by Chinese companies are knock-off second sources of US IC-s. While Chinese engineers are willing to work harder and longer hours than their US colleagues they have much less experience. In general I do not believe in miracles, like developing a significant new IC from scratch in 6 months.
6/27/2012 7:10 PM EDT
The risks mentioned in the comments above around employee retention and IP protection are very real, but in the end the risk of not being in China is far greater.
The needs of local Chinese customers (and other emerging markets) are simply different than what is required in most of the western world today. Product lines based in China will have the best ability to translate those needs into device specs and execute on them.
6/27/2012 7:55 PM EDT
I’m glad you’re aware that your IP is in danger. I’m curious how you calculate that the risk of not having a design center in China is higher than the risk of losing your IP portfolio. TI has a fantastic legal department, but that has very little impact in
6/28/2012 5:19 AM EDT
How ‘IP is in danger’ for a digital IP of a MCU? Unless an employee leak out all the rtl and custom block designs, it’s really hard for any company to produce a compatible IP product in a short time. And the market won’t wait for anyone to do so. That’s why the Chinese won’t simply copy a complex MCU or SoC product. Analog IPs, on the other hand, needs more protection.
The IP for an MCU fits on a USB thumb drive. You’re right, no Chinese PhD making $800/month would take that to his next job for better pay or because his government needs it for a weapons program.
Well everyone here is pretty well correct but what isn’t right is that "crazy" photo of Scott Roller! Photographer is doing him no favours!! :))
Check out Scott Roller’s Linkedin profile – that explains his smile and the demise of TI’s management proficiency. I just spoke to a friend at TI about how they were doing and he mentioned that China was eating their lunch in analog products. Seems China hired several contractors from the US a while ago (unemployed no doubt), paid them handsomely, and they solved their analog process problems within ~3 weeks. Now China is dialed in. No more field advantage for the US.
Like we found with Russian nuclear engineers, unemployed US semiconductor engineers can be a loose cannon for hire.