1.1 Types of ASICs

ICs are made on a thin (a few hundred microns thick), circular silicon wafer , with each wafer holding hundreds of die (sometimes people use dies or dice for the plural of die). The transistors and wiring are made from many layers (usually between 10 and 15 distinct layers) built on top of one another. Each successive mask layer has a pattern that is defined using a mask similar to a glass photographic slide. The first half-dozen or so layers define the transistors. The last half-dozen or so layers define the metal wires between the transistors (the interconnect ).

A full-custom IC includes some (possibly all) logic cells that are customized and all mask layers that are customized. A microprocessor is an example of a full-custom IC—designers spend many hours squeezing the most out of every last square micron of microprocessor chip space by hand. Customizing all of the IC features in this way allows designers to include analog circuits, optimized memory cells, or mechanical structures on an IC, for example. Full-custom ICs are the most expensive to manufacture and to design. The manufacturing lead time (the time it takes just to make an IC—not including design time) is typically eight weeks for a full-custom IC. These specialized full-custom ICs are often intended for a specific application, so we might call some of them full-custom ASICs.

We shall discuss full-custom ASICs briefly next, but the members of the IC family that we are more interested in are semicustom ASICs , for which all of the logic cells are predesigned and some (possibly all) of the mask layers are customized. Using predesigned cells from a cell library makes our lives as designers much, much easier. There are two types of semicustom ASICs that we shall cover: standard-cell–based ASICs and gate-array–based ASICs. Following this we shall describe the programmable ASICs , for which all of the logic cells are predesigned and none of the mask layers are customized. There are two types of programmable ASICs: the programmable logic device and, the newest member of the ASIC family, the field-programmable gate array.

1.1.1 Full-Custom ASICs

In a full-custom ASIC an engineer designs some or all of the logic cells, circuits, or layout specifically for one ASIC. This means the designer abandons the approach of using pretested and precharacterized cells for all or part of that design. It makes sense to take this approach only if there are no suitable existing cell libraries available that can be used for the entire design. This might be because existing cell libraries are not fast enough, or the logic cells are not small enough or consume too much power. You may need to use full-custom design if the ASIC technology is new or so specialized that there are no existing cell libraries or because the ASIC is so specialized that some circuits must be custom designed. Fewer and fewer full-custom ICs are being designed because of the problems with these special parts of the ASIC. There is one growing member of this family, though, the mixed analog/digital ASIC, which we shall discuss next.

Bipolar technology has historically been used for precision analog functions. There are some fundamental reasons for this. In all integrated circuits the matching of component characteristics between chips is very poor, while the matching of characteristics between components on the same chip is excellent. Suppose we have transistors T1, T2, and T3 on an analog/digital ASIC. The three transistors are all the same size and are constructed in an identical fashion. Transistors T1 and T2 are located adjacent to each other and have the same orientation. Transistor T3 is the same size as T1 and T2 but is located on the other side of the chip from T1 and T2 and has a different orientation. ICs are made in batches called wafer lots. A wafer lot is a group of silicon wafers that are all processed together. Usually there are between 5 and 30 wafers in a lot. Each wafer can contain tens or hundreds of chips depending on the size of the IC and the wafer.

If we were to make measurements of the characteristics of transistors T1, T2, and T3 we would find the following:

  • Transistors T1 will have virtually identical characteristics to T2 on the same IC. We say that the transistors match well or the tracking between devices is excellent.
  • Transistor T3 will match transistors T1 and T2 on the same IC very well, but not as closely as T1 matches T2 on the same IC.
  • Transistor T1, T2, and T3 will match fairly well with transistors T1, T2, and T3 on a different IC on the same wafer. The matching will depend on how far apart the two ICs are on the wafer.
  • Transistors on ICs from different wafers in the same wafer lot will not match very well.
  • Transistors on ICs from different wafer lots will match very poorly.

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