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Bright Ideas


1 March 2008 Lisa Su


Fostering innovation is essential to continued progress, but it is important to be able to turn ideas into products. Jim Banks speaks to Lisa Su, the senior vice president and chief technology officer for Freescale Semiconductor, about the company's goal of successfully creating products, quickly and at the right cost.


Demands on performance for semiconductors and embedded electronics are growing fast and the industry continues to invest heavily in the development of next-generation products. Its efforts can be seen on many fronts (improvement functionality, the creation of more complex electronics, ease-of-use) and the search is always on for the next bright idea.

These ideas, however, are not enough to deliver products. For that, the industry needs the right approach to combine innovation with effective product development and bring more sophisticated products to the market faster and at lower cost.

Combining these elements is a key goal of Freescale Semiconductor, which has set its sights on becoming the number one embedded connectivity solution provider in the world.

The company already has around 17 billion of their semiconductors in use around the world – in cars, computer networks, communications infrastructure industrial equipment and mobile phones.

"We use innovation in electronics to make systems smarter. We are transforming things like cars into much more intelligent systems," says Lisa Su, the senior vice president and chief technology officer at Freescale.

The company targets its products at five key markets: networking and communications, automotive, consumer electronics, industrial electronics and wireless / handheld connectivity.

The requirements of each sector define specific goals and, although Freescale's approach to innovation is partly driven by advances in technological capability, Su believes that this has to be viewed in context if it is to yield products that are relevant to its customers in those sectors.

"You have to look at global trends that will affect our lives over the next five years or more," she says.

TRENDS

Identifying key trends plays a large part in determining how Freescale spends it $1.2bn annual research and development budget. Current research and development goals involve developing innovative new process technology, design systems, ultra-dense packaging technology, furthering partnering programs with customers and universities and reducing the power consumption of micro-processors and micro-controllers.

"Today's automotive electronics are passive applications but will be more active in the future."

One of the most important trends Su identifies looks, of course, at the impact of the internet and greater access to broadband connectivity. Electronics drives the capability to make information available anywhere in the world, in any form.

"For us, the important focus is the infrastructure. We drive the 2G and 3G networks, which are all built on our processing capability. There is also a big opportunity in handsets and portable devices, so we look at the kind of innovations that are needed in devices in the coming years," she says.

At the same time, semiconductor designers must turn their attention to the environmental agenda, which brings the focus onto energy efficiency.

"This is a huge trend driving electronics in our key markets. People want cleaner cars and energy-efficient homes. Electronics is a key piece of that puzzle, so a lot of research and development effort goes into that," says Su.

The benefits of the drive to lower the power requirements of electronic devices not only accrue to the global ecosystem but to the individual users of those devices.

"It is an important issue for consumers, who always want their battery to last longer. We can look at reducing the power use of the electronics component," she says.

A further trend that Su picks out is what Freescale terms the 'silver lining', which looks to help the baby-boomer generation as it moves to retirement age.

"We are looking at how we can change their experience of technology to ensure that they have freedom in their lives. We want to build safer cars, better electronic detection capabilities and enable better communications between people and their support infrastructure," she says. "All of these trends drive the embedded electronics in which we specialise," she says.

"Collaboration is the key to getting innovation to market as quickly as possible."

When these trends are mapped against the demands of specific industry sectors, the targets for innovation start to materialise. The feasibility of reaching those targets depends very much on the infrastructure already in place and the developer's level of experience in the industry sector a new system is aimed at.

Su believes that Freescale's approach to technology development provides the kind of basis that supports innovation around very challenging targets with no room for error.

"We look at it in terms of platforms. We must make things easier to use, even though the electronics is becoming more sophisticated. Through platforms, we drive standards and ease-of-use; then we can develop specific solutions for different industry applications," she says.

Working with the tried and tested, familiar components of an established technology platform gives developers more room for manoeuvre.

"Working on a platform is important to help our customers bring new products to market as quickly as possible," she says.

AUTOMOTIVE TECHNOLOGIES

The benefits of this approach have been seen time and again in the automotive sector, where Freescale has a prominent position. Over 50% of cars now have some kind of Freescale electronics inside.

The sophistication of electronics in cars has progressed rapidly and the number of micro-controller components in cars has risen significantly in the last decade. They control systems such as airbags, tyre pressure monitoring and engine control. They can already help improve fuel efficiency, bring more multimedia entertainment capability into a car and make road travel safer, but next generation technologies will be much more sophisticated.

"We feel it will transform again in the next five years. Today's automotive electronics are, for the most part, passive applications but they will become more active. We will have active cruise control and collision detection systems, for example, which will take safety to a new level," says Su.

"Electronics drive the capability to make information available anywhere in the world, in any form."

These applications, of course, require technological sophistication and creative design but the performance parameters are so stringent that the ability to start from a familiar and trusted platform and rely on a high quality product design stage are perhaps more important.

"There is an appetite for sophisticated applications like self-parking cars but they demand that quality be of the highest importance. The system cannot malfunction, so 'zero-defect' quality is very important. If applications do not meet that standard, they will not be enabled," says Su.

ACTIVE AUTOMOTIVE ELECTRONICS

The move to more active control systems in cars is gathering speed. Consumers have shown a strong appetite for advanced applications and seem receptive to the idea of technology taking more control, particularly in regard to safety. Drivers already trust their airbags to protect them and it is not a great leap from there for systems to take more control of parking, lane position or speed.

Adaptive cruise control (ACC), for instance, is one of many advanced automotive systems in which Freescale semiconductors feature – designed to improve driver awareness and safety. Building on existing cruise control systems, ACC gives more braking power to the microcontroller.

It also automatically tracks cars ahead using forward radar and slows the car if the distance to the car in front falls below a preset limit, accelerating when the road ahead is again clear. Furthermore, intelligent lane prediction using steering angle and yaw rate sensors predict curves in the road to ensure that any vehicle ahead being tracked is in the same lane. The very highest reliability standards for such applications are essential.

Freescale's MPC5500 automotive architecture includes an extensive range of devices, including the MPC5561, which features in advanced driver and safety system and which is expected to be qualified for automotive requirements at 125C.

INDUSTRY COLLABORATION

As well as the platform approach, another key strand in the pursuit of quality is closer collaboration with OEMs and – from a wider perspective – other electronics companies.

"Collaboration with industry partners and with laboratories and universities is very important. The industry must address global issues, so it becomes part of our global responsibility to meet these challenges together. It is important that we sponsor initiatives that promote innovation around the world," believes Su.

Developing a platform approach for product development and showing commitment to cross-industry collaboration has enabled Freescale to exploit many opportunities in the automotive sector, as well as in other industry verticals.

"We must make things easier to use, even though electronics are becoming more sophisticated."

In the communications and networking sector, Su sees many more applications developing that derive from the increasing availability of worldwide information.

Emerging applications in this new era of connectivity require sophisticated, next generation electronics to enable them, just as they need higher bandwidth for consumer devices.

Demands for more functionality from mobile phone technology grow greater every day, so the ability to develop innovative applications quickly and cost-effectively will stand a company in good stead.

"Mobile phones are OK now, but they do not give users the same experience they get at home. The devices need more processing and display capability," says Su. "We also need to look at emerging countries, including many in Asia, which are significant growth markets and need to develop their communications infrastructure."

The industry has many targets to aim at, and the research and development commitment from electronics companies is certainly in place to deliver innovative technologies. What's more, the industry is also developing more appropriate structures to promote innovation, as exemplified by Freescale.

"There is no shortage of opportunity, but collaboration with our customers and partners is key to getting innovation to the market as quickly as possible," says Su. Connectivity is, after all, about bringing people together.