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Electronics Production | May 05, 2006

UK wireless IC design centre to double in<br>size as new ZigBee projects get under way

The Cambridge-based IC design facility of the leading ZigBee platform vendor, Ember, is set to double in size by the end of 2006, following the announcement of the company's development partnership with STMicroelectronics.
Ember's 11-strong hardware design team has already developed two ICs at the site - including the ZigBee industry's first single chip solution integrating both radio and microcontroller. Ember is now finalising the specifications for several new IC programs with STMicroelectronics, and actively recruiting digital and analogue engineers for the development phases.

"We expect the UK design centre to be at least 20 strong by the end of 2006", says Nick Horne, Director of IC Engineering at Ember Europe. "Ember has an intellectual lead in this exciting new wireless semiconductor marketplace. We're capitalising on that by developing new generations of product in partnership with STMicroelectronics, who are providing semiconductor IP as well as access to advanced fabrication processes and semiconductor research."

These new IC design programs are among the most challenging in the world, as the ZigBee standard drives new levels of cost/performance for wireless communications: designers are faced with extremely tight cost targets, combined with demand for a small bill of materials for external components, and extremely low power consumption.
"Without doubt, ZigBee is THE cutting edge of single-chip wireless", adds Horne. "Wireless-enabling sensors demands such an extreme combination of price and performance that we expect to set a new standard of innovation, one that could offer a model of economy for the other more performance-oriented wireless schemes for some time to come."
The IC design challenges that face Ember Europe include finding ways to minimise the number of external components usually required to build a radio, the use of fine geometry semiconductor fabrication processes in a way that does not degrade radio performance, obtaining high radio sensitivity in close proximity to high clock rate digital circuits, and optimising operating modes and power management schemes to suit ultra-long lifetime operation from battery power.

The rewards of getting these designs right promise to be market sizes that will dwarf all current wireless applications combined.

"Nearly 10 billion microcontrollers are shipped per year. A very large proportion of those are direct targets for ZigBee enabling, and we expect ZigBee to stimulate many additional applications", notes Horne. "This is certainly no design backwater - it's likely to position engineers at the very hub of both the semiconductor industry and the 21st century global economy."

Ember sees Cambridge as a great site for this centre of IC design excellence, because of the region's long association with electronics and wireless design, and the general lifestyle attractions of the area.

Horne notes the considerable opportunity that ZigBee IC design holds for the rapid career progression of young engineers. "At the moment, we have more opportunities than engineers. The right staff have ample chance not only to exploit their core skill of digital or analogue circuit design, but also to get involved with the wider mixed-signal IC team to integrate the various circuit elements, to verify and test the design, and bring the complete solution to market."

As an example, Ember Europe recruited a designer in January 2006. Previously, while working for an established semiconductor company, this young engineer was responsible for small blocks of digital circuitry for ICs, as part of a project team of over 20. Within a week of joining Ember, he became a member of the group defining the structure of Ember's next IC, and took responsibility for a large proportion of the design. He notes: "the attraction of joining Ember for me was becoming part of a small and tightly-knit design team. It's put me in a position where I have quickly gained much greater and wider responsibility: as well as looking after my own section of the IC, I'm now intimately involved with the complete design flow of a new device - and peer-reviewing my colleagues' ideas and work".

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