In an increasingly interconnected world, Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) semiconductors have re-emerged as a vital technology, bringing to life the advanced electronics that will shape and support our future lives.
The much-publicised global semiconductor shortage has left businesses across all industries reeling. At a time when chip demand was already soaring, the planet was hit with the perfect storm of pandemic restrictions, a skills shortage and a need for increasing design complexity.
We’re living in an era of rapid technological transformation. A pioneering fusion of progress in artificial intelligence (A.I.), the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and quantum computing is occurring. All of which will need powerful, customised ASICs chips.
With so many newfound applications emerging each year, demand is expected to grow exponentially for the foreseeable future. In fact, the global market size of the microchip industry is expected to reach $24.7 billion by 2025, representing an 8.2% CAGR in this market during this period.
This insatiable industry demand for the chips themselves, and the materials needed to build them, has also led to a skills shortage of quality software developers. Right now, there’s fierce competition for the best people across all industries, from automotive to medical devices and telecoms.
But what exactly are ASICs semiconductors and how are they different from other chips? What makes them so important in our rapidly advancing modern world?
The ASICS basics
Simply put, an ASIC is an integrated circuit (IC) developed for a particular application.
Because they are customised for a very specific purpose, the advanced algorithms and functionality enable the optimal performance of that application.
These silicon chips contain a huge amount of the electronics needed on a single integrated circuit. Whereas some semiconductors are designed for general purpose, with many functions, the ASICs chip performs a repeated function extremely effectively and efficiently.
You’ll find ASICs in public clouds, private data centres and within connected devices all over the world. Everything from cars to televisions, tablets and smartphone technology. They’re vital for artificial intelligence and cloud computing and they’re responsible for powering much of the IoT revolution.
Given the custom nature of ASICs chips for a single product or application, they can be expensive to design, sometimes running into the tens - or even hundreds - of millions of dollars over two to three years. As such, they’re typically reserved for mass produced products with huge production runs.
ASICS - the rising demand
Despite the present growth in popularity, the overall ASICs semiconductor market was actually shrinking over the last 20 years. With organisations across all industries dropping the ASIC business model in favour of Application-Specific Standard Product (ASSP) integrated circuits. The ASSP chip is similar in function, but it’s designed for a specific industry-wide application, optimised to that market and sold to multiple companies.
Until recently, the prevailing attitude was that - unless you were certain that a product would bowl your customers over - then it’s hard to warrant the increased design spend that ASICs require. Given the costs and the risk in buying bespoke, untested technologies for mass use, there also needs to be a huge amount of trust in your chip design team!
However, with the increased functionality and potential that ASICs offer modern technologies, now everyone from electronics to medical devices, telecommunications, and especially automotive companies are desperate for them.
So what are some of the booming and emerging markets that are creating the current shortages?
Internet of Things (IoT) devices
Custom built ASICs are powering the digital revolution through IoT smart devices: the network of physical objects that come embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for smoother connection and data exchange with other devices and systems over the Internet.
Their popularity here lies primarily in the reduced physical space taken on the chip and their capability to function under low energy demands.
IoT devices need ASICs to collect data with sensors, before sending them through existing algorithmic models, in turn run on cloud-based ASICs. They send alerts and information to the end user and help the technology to better predict future outcomes.
Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)
Right now, ASICs are acting as a catalyst for major companies and organisations to incorporate more AI into their systems. Take Google’s Tensor Processing Units (TPUs) for example - in essence a series of ASICs designed for machine learning, optimised to run open source machine learning software.
They’re now being developed for the specific purpose of supporting artificial intelligence in applications such as the development and training of AI algorithms. Alternative forms of hardware tech, leveraged to develop algorithms and deep neural networks - such as CPUs - are highly programmable, but they simply don’t offer the same performance.
The programming of an ASIC chip enables instructions to be programmed to operate as an accelerator for simultaneous algorithms. You can even create multiple AI algorithms to operate concurrently, without compromising on computing power.
The nature of many cryptocurrencies means that blocks must be discovered by running hashing algorithms - you can’t mine Bitcoin with your CPU, you’ll need a custom built ASICS miner.
Why is this? It takes a vast amount of computational power to mine cryptocurrencies - so much so, that traditional CPUs and GPUs were struggling to do so competitively. This created the need for a new type of hardware that could handle the demands of crypto mining.
The first crypto-specific ASICs chip actually hit the market in 2013 . Since then we’ve seen several semiconductor giants designing and building versions for the blockchain sector, providing energy efficient hashing for proof-of-work consensus networks.
The market has become so important that the likes of Intel have recently entered the blockchain race, while Samsung - the world’s largest chip manufacturer - already makes ASICs chips specifically for cryptocurrency mining.
The chips are down - and so are the people to make them!
Before the pandemic, producers of ASICs chips were already producing at full capacity, with talented developers in short supply.
The outbreak of Covid-19 exacerbated the problem to crisis levels - not only in terms of supply chain impact, but also adding to the demand. When you have more people working and entertaining themselves at home it creates a need for additional personal computers, laptops, electronic devices and the chips to facilitate them.
As the technologies become increasingly complicated, the chip design becomes more complex, requiring additional labour. As emerging technologies fuel growth throughout the semiconductor industry, this will lead to fantastic career opportunities for skilled ASICs engineers.
In turn this creates fierce competition between employers who are offering increasingly attractive salary and benefits packages and career progression prospects for the right people.
With this bullish outlook you can see how the need for embedded software engineers with ASICs experience will continue to grow. So now is the time for forward-thinking companies to make moves to ensure that they can recruit and retain the best people. Not only to meet the current, but also future demands.
Many major chip manufacturers have now restructured their supply chains so that they can source from a pool of manufacturers, while some of the major automotive OEMs and tech giants are taking things a step further: designing their own chips in-house to improve the customisation further and reduce lead times. Samsung and Apple are two examples of companies that have succeeded with internally designed ASICs solutions that ensure their products stand out from the crowd.
Solving the people problem
The increasing need for ASICs engineers, coupled with pandemic-induced restrictions on movement, has led to severe skills shortages all over the world.
Across many industries, it’s fair to say that there’s more work of this nature than there are suitably skilled people to fill the roles. All of which leads to costly project delays, curtailing many an organisation’s ability to develop their futuristic plans and achieve ambitious growth plans.
But fortunately for CMC clients…we can help! The specialist consultants in our dedicated embedded software division have years of experience in helping clients around the world to successfully deliver their technology and embedded softare projects to time and budget.
Given the exponential speed of technology evolution and advancement, we understand that you need a consulting partner that’s always fully up-to-date on even the most advanced technologies and trends such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cloud computing, robotics, and the Internet of Things (I.o.T).
Get in touch today and we can talk you through how we can best support your embedded software and systems and solve your people-shaped business pressures.
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