What is Micram's elevator speech?
Over the last 25 years, Micram’s unique team of bipolar IC design engineers has developed our UltraFastSiGe™ technology powering the world’s fastest ASICs, our VEGA ultrafast data converters. VEGA digital-to-analog converters (DAC) and analog-to-digital converters (ADC) are used by leading-edge researchers in developing next-generation communications systems, test and measurement OEMs and commercial mil-aero companies.
Micram was founded some 30 years ago. What motivated you to start the company and how has it evolved since then?
While working on my PhD at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, as a research and teaching assistant, I realized I might be unemployable since I don’t accept administrative hurdles overpowering common sense very well. So I started Micram to see if I could avoid all of that.
We began as a service provider for bipolar circuit chip layout, but we quickly became involved in high speed analog/digital circuit design and were able to recruit a group of very talented engineering graduates out of Ruhr University.
Many of them are still with us and form the core of our team of 15 designers. Two of our engineers also hold university professorships. The average Micram employee has been with us for over 15 years, and some go nearly all the way back to the beginning of the company.
What is the company’s business model?
Initially, we were focused on contract custom design, but in 2008 we began to shift our emphasis to selling standard products and pursuing strategic OEM supply agreements. We’ve formed several strong OEM relationships and sell both our VEGA signal converters and custom ASIC designs to these partners.
Our own Micram labeled system-level products include arbitrary waveform generators (AWG) and our new Universal Signal Processing Architecture (USPA) platform, a rapid prototyping system which integrates VEGA signal converters with high speed FPGAs to form a uniquely powerful and cost-effective development environment.
Tell us more about the functionality and performance of the VEGA signal converters.
Over the years, we’ve created over a dozen ASICs that set world speed records at their release. In 2008, we did this with the first 25 GSPS DAC and ADC, which were the beginning of our VEGA line of ultrafast signal converters.
Our 25 GSPS converters were used by virtually all the major academic and commercial researchers to develop then emerging coherent optical communication systems. These first VEGA products were essentially very fast ASICs on evaluation boards, but we have evolved to feature-rich AWG systems with far more sophisticated software and hardware designs. Over time, VEGA DACs became progressively faster, culminating with our current 8-bit, 128 GSPS AWG systems.
Explain the concept behind the USPA platform.
A few years ago, several of our customers began expressing an interest in using VEGA signal converters in their own custom developed, proprietary, rapid prototyping systems, which also incorporated high speed FPGAs. This type of custom development system is a very expensive and time-consuming proposition, which can take one or two years and several million dollars to create. In working with these customers, we started imagining a better way to get the job done.
This was the beginning of our USPA platform concept. Two years ago, we began a partnership with PRO DESIGN GmbH, which had an established line of FPGA-based rapid prototyping systems incorporating an extensive portfolio of standardized I/O interfaces and high speed FPGAs. Working with PRO DESIGN, we developed the Universal Signal Processing Architecture, which tightly integrates our ultrafast VEGA converters with PRO DESIGN’s digital signal processing system.
In 2020, we introduced the USPA platform, which now enables our customers to rapidly develop communications and signal processing devices without the time and cost of building a proprietary development system. We built USPA with a modular architecture that gives customers the flexibility to easily reconfigure, reuse, share and upgrade their prototyping system. This level of flexibility is seldom available with proprietary systems and makes our USPA platform a uniquely cost-effective solution for rapid prototyping.
What markets or applications are you targeting now and what differentiates Micram from other suppliers?
Our new USPA platform for rapid prototyping is very attractive to companies and designers working in the microwave realm, which is a new opportunity for Micram and one we are very excited about. The bulk of our customers have long been in Europe and Asia. With the USPA platform, we plan to expand our reach in North America significantly.
Micram has consistently offered some of the very fastest, highest bandwidth AWGs available, and it is the performance of our UltraFastSiGe technologies that keeps customers coming back to us. With the USPA platform, we are offering another unique set of capabilities that can’t be duplicated for 2x to 3x the price. Being on the leading edge is our primary competitive advantage and we work very hard to stay there.
Discuss the semiconductor technologies you use for your designs.
Micram is the longest established bipolar SiGe design team in Europe. We began and have stayed with bipolar SiGe technologies as they are very fast, well established, reliable and have reasonable mask and manufacturing costs. SiGe also has no internal noise sources from switching with a fixed clock signal, as CMOS circuits have, which is a key advantage in signal converter design.
Our latest generation of the VEGA DAC was implemented using a BiCMOS technology, which enables on-chip memory within the DAC.
Is the ongoing consolidation in the semiconductor industry a threat or an opportunity for you?
I believe the key challenges for the industry are quickly rising R&D costs and the increasing importance of economies of scale. In response, there has been a natural evolution toward both consolidation and the advancement of integration technologies, as we see with the rapid proliferation of mixed-signal systems on chip. Complex IC design costs now exceed $100 million, with costs of $20 million to $50 million becoming commonplace for more basic components. Real world interfaces are analog and the insatiable demand for higher data transmission speeds and complex signal processing require advanced integration technologies.
We believe these trends represent significant opportunities for Micram; our new USPA platform addresses both, with greater cost efficiency and a uniquely powerful development environment for advanced integration technologies. We are here to solve development problems and are very well positioned to do just that.
What design tools do you use and where are the gaps between simulation and measured performance?
We use a combination of Cadence tools and our very own 3D modeling tools for fine-tuning models provided by the foundries. This fine-tuning process is driven by feedback from measuring test circuits, and it helps us close those gaps. We also work closely with the R&D teams at our foundries, who often use our designs as their internal test circuits for next-generation processes. European Union funded multivendor R&D projects enable that kind of direct cooperation with the foundries.
One of your principles is that designers are personally responsible for characterizing their designs. Some companies have separate characterization teams to maximize the efficiency of the designers. Contrast the two approaches.
We want to come as close to an academic development environment as possible. This is consistent with our designs, which are always on the leading edge of what is currently possible. I believe the personal feedback experience is a primary factor driving job satisfaction for our engineers.
Separate design and characterization teams might be appropriate for mass production of average designs, but we don’t do average. If the average chip design is like building Fiats, Micram builds Ferraris, hand-crafted and highly optimized for their purpose. This is a key reason why we have almost no employee turnover; it’s very satisfying to create and build the Ferrari of semiconductors.
You and your team are global — you in New Zealand, technical staff in Germany, sales and marketing in the U.S. and Thailand. How do you keep everyone aligned across these time zones?
We’ve been practicing that global approach for over 15 years, since I migrated to New Zealand for personal reasons. The tools for this have always been email and Skype-type apps. We also use cloud-based teamwork apps to implement communication and shared resources for sales, marketing and accounting.
We have regular meetings at times that can usually accommodate people in different time zones; this is enough to keep everyone on the same page. Of course, customer meetings are more of a challenge; for U.S. customers, I often attend midnight or 3:00 a.m. conference calls. But that’s really quite a small price to pay for living in paradise!