Chips with everything

Siemens’ decision earlier this month to close its £1.1bn Tyneside semiconductor plant underlines the failings of pinning too much of the UK’s economic growth on inward investment. Waving fat cheques in the form of Regional Selective Assistance to lure foreign investors no longer looks like the key to wealth creation. In Scotland, however, which earlier […]

Siemens’ decision earlier this month to close its £1.1bn Tyneside semiconductor plant underlines the failings of pinning too much of the UK’s economic growth on inward investment. Waving fat cheques in the form of Regional Selective Assistance to lure foreign investors no longer looks like the key to wealth creation.

In Scotland, however, which earlier this year lost a planned £1.25bn Hyundai semiconductor plant, steps are under way to create a more sustainable form of economic growth.

A few years ago, Scottish Enterprise set out to attract higher-value jobs to help anchor inward investors to the manufacturing base. The drive culminated in the announcement last Christmas of Project Alba by Scottish economic development agency Scottish Enterprise and Californian semiconductor design company Cadence.

Based at Livingston, in the heart of Silicon Glen, Alba is bringing not just higher-value jobs to complement Scotland’s electronics manufacturing base. Through a collaboration of industry and academia, it aims to make Scotland a world leader in semiconductor research, design, application and training.

Cadence, which is building its latest design centre on the 39ha site, will create up to 1,900 design engineering jobs. It specialises in system-on-chip devices the next generation of semiconductors, which contain a number of functions for a product in one piece of silicon.

The jobs potential at Livingston could be much greater, claims Scottish Enterprise, as more design and related electronics businesses are drawn to the site’s unique features.

Like many development sites, Alba has good transport links, with easy access to related companies. But few, if any, sites in Europe have its level of support infrastructure, which is intended to create a climate in which chip design and technology can flourish.

A vital part of Alba is a System Level Integration Institute. This will train system-on-chip design engineers to help solve a worldwide shortage of such specialists.

Four Scottish Universities Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde are developing the institute, which they see as a continuation of their work. Edinburgh, for example, has been researching system-on-chip design since the 1970s.

The universities will offer professional development training, with input from international universities including Berkeley in California, the University of Leuven in Belgium and IMEC, Europe’s largest independent microelectronics R&D centre.

Training is likely to consist of three- day courses in two-week blocks at the universities or the Alba campus.

The institute will also run a new full-time MSc course in system- on-chip design, due to start next year. The Scottish universities are creating a syllabus which is likely to cover hardware components, hardware and software architecture, system integration and applications, and technology management.

Professor Peter Grant of the department of electrical engineering at Edinburgh University, who initially led the team that set up the institute, expects that 50 students a year will take the course. The exact number will depend on funding, part of which is expected to come from company sponsorship. An on-line distance learning version of the MSc is also envisaged.

A number of the Scottish universities’ graduates will join Cadence this year. In the next five years, the company plans to recruit 2,000 graduates worldwide, and the institute will be a source of tailor-made talent.

Alba will also have a trading exchange where intellectual property (IP) governing parts of chip design will be bought and sold. Companies and IP suppliers will be able to trade part of one product’s chip design for re-use in a new application, without infringing intellectual property rights.

Trading is necessary mainly because no manufacturer can afford to design everything from scratch. Semiconductor designers also have a limited number of patents.

Michael Bealmear, Cadence’s executive vice-president, says: ‘For system-on-chip to become a reality we had to find a place where we could work on standard exchange mechanisms for our IP blocks, where we had rapid access to other companies’ IP, and where training and talent was available.’

With its new institute and trading exchange, supported by state-of-the-art communications, Alba looks set to provide exactly that.