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Analog Circuit Design to Go

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a design engineer at a company making an industrial control device or a medical instrument.  You’ve got the digital portion of your design pretty well nailed, but there is a 4mA to 20mA process control loop and some isolation issues that you’re a little concerned about.  Although you could design some analog circuits to solve these problems, you’re really a digit-head.  It would take a lot of your time, and you’re not sure you would get it right the first time.  What to do? Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI) has solved your problem.  ADI has recently introduced an expanded version of the company’s Circuits from the LabTM reference circuits.  These are not reference designs.  They don’t tell an engineer how to design an entire system.  Rather, they provide lab-tested circuit designs for some common analog circuits that give design engineers problems.  Some examples are ADC drivers, DAC outputs, RF or IF circuits or isolation circuits.  A complete list is available on the ADI website. In addition to the circuit design, ADI also provides circuit documentation test data and is now offering PCB layout files, software device drivers and, in some cases, evaluation hardware.  The purpose is to provide a deeper understanding of the circuit so that an engineer can easily trouble-shoot any glitches that might crop up.

The Impact of Japan's Earthquake on the Electronics and Semiconductor Industries

The strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan occurred Friday at 2:46 PM local time.  The earthquake and resulting tsunami were so powerful, the island shoreline was moved 8 feet!  Following the massive 8.9 earthquake was a tsunami that unleashed further devastation.  In the ensuing hours, additional damage reports coming from Japan reveals how damaging this quake really was.  Two nuclear facilities with a total of five reactors received severe damage.  One facility that contains three reactors is an older GE design commonly found in the U.S. as well.

As of today, there have been two explosions.  An explosion shattered the building housing the nuclear reactor on Saturday.  Although government officials are claiming that the metal containment vessel surrounding the reactor is still intact, clearly the situation is getting worse, not better.  Rods have been exposed twice, resulting in a partial meltdown.  At this point, the best case scenario will be to stop the nuclear reaction, cool the facility down, encase it in concrete, and abandon the facility.  This would leave Sendai in an electricity deficit from the closure of 3 to 5 reactors.  This certainly will cause some problems for the semiconductor and related manufacturing facilities in this area as they are electric power hogs.

Is This Really the Post-PC Era?

The latest introduction of iPad2 and the rise of the tablet PCs has prompted once again the proclamation that we are now in the Post-PC Era.  It seems we have been living in a Post-PC Era for about the last 15 years.  Every time there is an innovation in consumer electronics it is hailed as a major shift that will adversely impact the PC market.  First it was PDAs such as the Palm Pilot.  The cell phones and subsequently smart phones resulted in people sounding the death knell.  Today it is the iPad2 and tablet PCs.  If this is in fact the Post-PC Era, why did Apple introduce a high end MacBook notebook featuring Intel’s Thunderbolt last week?  This was announced just before the iPad2 launch.

I will contend a more correct description is the PC Enhancement Era.  All of these devices have grown and provided a larger TAM for the semiconductor market.  But the PC market continues to grow and is a huge market for semiconductors.  In 1996 the total PC market of desktops and notebooks was 78 million units.  By 2010, including netbooks, the PC market has grown to 328 million units.  This year that number is expected to reach 368 million.  This is happening even with tablet PCs growing to between 30 and 40 million units in 2011.

All these electronic devices work with a PC and enhance each other’s capabilities.  Until there is a major change to the iPad platform you need a PC to work with it.

iPad2 Adds Cool Improvements Yet Memory Remains Unchanged

The much anticipated announcement of the Apple iPad2 took place today.  Steve Jobs actually keynoted the announcement and received a standing ovation, despite his ongoing health issues.  Many of the announced features were expected improvements over the iPad; the basics include:

Intel’s Thunderbolt: Will It Shock The Computing Market?

Intel has released the Thunderbolt technology (Feb. 24, 2011) with Apple as the first OEM to implement it.  Originally code named Light Peak, this latest technology is designed for faster media transfer and simplified connections between devices.

Thunderbolt combines both optical and electrical technology.  It consists of controllers, one at each end (PC and peripheral device), a common connector and a Thunderbolt cable.  Devices can be daisy chained connected by electrical or optical cables.

The first product to hit the market with Thunderbolt is Apple’s new line of MacBook Pro notebook PCs.  It should be made very clear that Thunderbolt is not exclusive to Apple.  Thunderbolt is a new PC technology developed by Intel.  Going forward Thunderbolt is expected to be deployed by other OEMs.

According to an Intel spokesperson, the current version of Thunderbolt connector technology will be licensed broadly to the industry.  This will enable products using Intel’s Thunderbolt controllers.  At first Intel is focused on enabling targeted products.  However, deployment will broaden as the technology ramps.

Thunderbolt combines high-speed data and HD video connections together onto a single cable.  There are two communication methods or protocols – PCI Express for data transfer and DisplayPort for displays.  The transfer rate for media files is 10Gbps.

Semico Spin

Here We Go Again!

Here we go again!

Speculators and  the uncertainty in the Middle East have once again fueled oil prices to its highest levels since 2008.  While Libya only contributes 2% to the global crude oil production it is a major regional player. Libya is Africa's third-largest crude producer and has the largest oil reserves in Africa, approximately 44 billion barrels. The world consumes 87.5 million barrels of oil per day.

Today crude oil hit $92 a barrel on the New York Mercantile. Brent crude hit $106 per barrel on the ICE future exchange. As these price increases work through the supply chain we expect to see gasoline prices continue to rise. World economies continue to gain momentum and energy consumption is expected to increase. Don't be surprised if gasoline hits four dollars a gallon in the U.S. this summer. As long as the price of crude oil does not reach $150 a barrel, Semico believes the economic recovery will continue.

What's the Fastest Growing Semiconductor MOS Logic Market? (Hint: It's Not Microprocessors)

It should come as no surprise that semiconductor foundry manufacturers are booming. The semiconductor industry has been transformed. But it's not just fabless versus IDM (Integrated Device Manufacturer). Revenue has shifted from Embedded MPUs, MCUs, DSPs and Standard Cell ASICs to Special Purpose Logic chips. Integration has taken over MOS Logic sales, creating a huge increase in the sales of fully integrated semiconductors. Most of these chips are being manufactured by foundries.

Let's take a closer look at MOS Logic markets over the last eleven years, beginning with the year 1999 rather than 2000 to eliminate the effects of the dot-com boom-and-bust in 2000 and 2001. From 1999 through 2010 Special Purpose Logic sales increased from $16.5 billion to $59.3 billion, a CAGR of 12.3%. During the same time period computing MPU sales grew from $27.2 billion to $38.8 billion, a CAGR of only 3.6%. No other MOS logic category had significant growth, either because the sales base was too low or because the CAGR was too low.

Special Purpose Logic is now by far the largest MOS Logic device category. Special Purpose Logic sales are greater than MPU, MCU and DSP sales combined and nearly five times the sales of standard cell ASICs and FPGAs combined. In fact, Special Purpose Logic sales in 2010 were greater than sales for any other semiconductor device type. What has happened?

New Strategy at AMD?

There have been several key changes at the senior level at AMD. On Feb. 8, 2011, two senior employees stepped down. Bob Rivet, vice president and chief operations and administrative officer, and Marty Seyer, senior vice president of corporate strategy, have left the company. One month ago CEO Dirk Meyer was replaced by interim CEO Thomas Seifert. The Board of Directors has yet to name a permanent replacement for Meyer.

This appears to signal a change in strategy at AMD. The company has fallen behind Intel on the PC and enterprise fronts. But more significantly AMD had no real plan for pursuing the ultra-mobile space like Intel has, in particular netbooks, tablet PCs, and smartphones.

Intel has been focused heavily in these areas with Atom. Even if Intel gains only a small share of the smartphone market from the ARM-based processors, it is such a huge market that it is worth the effort. Intel is leveraging off of its netbook success with Atom. The bill of materials for a tablet PC is not that different. Intel has established a group specifically for netbook and tablet PCs. It is also leveraging off of the netbook with future Atom SoCs for embedded control applications. These are new markets that offer Intel additional growth over the traditional computing market.

Electrifying Speed

I guess I’m a gearhead. I like double overhead camshafts, six speed transmissions and small-displacement, high revving engines that make lots of noise. I like fast cars with great handling. I’m having trouble adjusting to hybrids and even more trouble adjusting to plug-in electric cars that need to have electronically generated noise added to alert pedestrians. Low-performance econo-slugs aren’t interesting to me.

A colleague, not a car guy, suggested that electric cars would never sell until they raced at the Daytona 500 – maybe a NASCAR car in electric blue. That hasn’t happened yet, but electric cars are setting speed records.

The Buckeye Bullet (version 2.5), an electric car designed and built by students at Ohio State University’s Center for Auto Research, recently set an international record for electric cars, an average of 307.7 miles per hour in back-to-back runs on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. That may seem slow, but the wheel-driven land speed record car needed a 3,750hp turboshaft engine to go 470.4 mph.

The Buckeye Bullet was sponsored by Venturi, a French electric vehicle company; and used lithium ion batteries designed by A123 Systems of Watertown, Mass. Both are involved in the production of electric or hybrid passenger cars.

A New Sweetheart on Valentines Day

On February 14th, 2011, Valentine’s Day, IBM will be debuting “Watson” as a contestant on the popular game show, Jeopardy!. Watson is a supercomputer powered by an IBM POWER7 server and is programmed to handle a massive number of tasks at rapid speeds to analyze complex language and deliver responses to inquiries such as those posed on Jeopardy!. The Watson software incorporates a number of proprietary technologies for the specialized demands of processing an enormous number of concurrent tasks and data while analyzing information in real time.

The computer has the ability to analyze the subtle meanings, irony, and riddles which accompany Jeopardy questions. It develops an answer and assesses its probability of accuracy to determine if a response is warranted. All this is performed at record speeds.

This is definitely more than just number crunching the winning moves on a chess board. The Watson software has to understand language, extract information, do it quickly and then determine a level of confidence in that response.

Although Jeopardy! presents an entertaining example of the technology, the real applications are truly awesome. The technology could be applied in areas such as healthcare, to help accurately diagnose patients. IBM suggests other applications such as improving online self-service help desks, providing tourists and citizens with specific information regarding cities and much more.

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