Need Design Talent? Create a Contest

Amid a labor crunch for qualified engineers, semiconductor ecosystem participants are coming up with new strategies to entice university students, such as design competitions.

In one design competition sponsored by Renesas earlier this year for European university students and their educators, teams were tasked with building a self-guided robot that could drive along a track in a virtual simulation environment. One team built a magenta-hued microcontroller robot that resembled a combination of bubble gum, a race car, and a hammerhead shark.

First prize: a pair of wireless on-ear headphones for each member of the team, not to mention exposure to an industry hungry for the next generation of design professionals.

A team from the University of Craiova in Romania created the pink entry, which was good but not great. The robot handled the qualification race with ease, but the second circuit, which contestants were not allowed to preview before the competition, proved too challenging and the robot fell off the track. The team received ninth place overall. The winning robot, from the University of Athens in Greece, was developed by a team that called themselves Genesis.

It may not be Formula 1, but those who lead such contests say they give college students a taste of the difficulties and triumphs of being a designer in the semiconductor industry. Rok Vrabic, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, who was involved with the race, said the teams had to make decisions about gear ratios, the distance between the wheels in both the front-to-back direction and right-to-left direction, and the number of sensors in the front of the robot, among other variables.

“They can play around with the geometry of the robot as well as with the look and feel,” said Vrabic during the event’s livestream. “Choosing a lower gear ratio means the robot might go faster on strides, but it’s maybe not going to have enough torque to accelerate especially. So it’s a gamble. Whatever you choose, you’re losing something else. So therefore, it’s very challenging to just try to find the best settings.”

Those challenges are a fundamental aspect of the contest, not only for the competitors, but for Renesas, as well. Cornelia Stegmann, events manager at Renesas Electronics, said the company “feels it’s important to support the next generation of engineers to develop and strengthen their skills in microcontroller software development, real time control theory, sensor systems, motor control, project management, teamwork, and more.”

Semiconductor executives say that developing that pipeline of skilled workers has become an increasingly critical priority across an industry that is heading toward $1 trillion in revenue. Chipmakers, as well as those involved in adjacent activities like EDA, claim an existing talent crunch will likely be made worse in the short term by tech and auto giants moving their semiconductor activities in-house and hiring accordingly. Simultaneously, a slowdown in Moore’s Law means companies have to design more customized hardware instead of just shrinking components in order to achieve gains in power and performance.

Those dynamics have led the EDA world to embrace big data approaches after years of reluctance. Through a combination of data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning, designers are finding ways to do more with less. But no matter how sophisticated, experts agree such tools will never solve labor issues entirely, in part because complex tools must be designed by teams with an understanding of the complex problems at play. Instead, expanding the labor pool will require a multifaceted solution, with a commitment to more inclusive and diverse hiring practices, industry partnerships and investments in the K-12 and university educational systems, and possibly raising wages, among other interventions.

To be sure, only some competitions act as a direct hiring pipeline for companies and a handful of annual events are unlikely to generate what some industry advocates say is half a million additional workers that will need to enter the semiconductor ecosystem over the next few years. Still, Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation, a non-profit focused on workforce development and improving diversity, equity, and inclusion for the industry, said competitions are an important way to move the industry forward.

“At the SEMI Foundation, we explore many different creative strategies that have the potential to attract talent to the microelectronics industry, and contests have proven to be an excellent way to engage students,” said Liss. “With so many opportunities that involve such varied skill sets, finding new ways to reach students of all backgrounds is critical to addressing chip industry workforce challenges.”

Some competitions, like the International SoC Design Conference in Korea, involve designing chips themselves. Many others, like the Siemens Home Appliances Design Award, have a broader structure.

Synopsys has several university-focused activities, including the Microelectronic Olympiad organized by Synopsys Armenia, an IC Design Bootcamp organized by Synopsys Chile, and multiple initiatives in Taiwan. “Our motivation in organizing these contests is to show what is being done in the region in the electronic industry,” said Victor Grimblatt, R&D group director and general manager at Synopsys. “It has been quite interesting to see the interest from several companies and universities when they listen to the presentations from the winners. It’s probably not what the companies and universities expected.”

Executives say the point of most contests for university students is often less about creating cutting-edge intellectual property or hiring for a particular position and more about marketing the industry as a whole. Still, many contests have ambitious goals that could accrue over time and across companies.

Keysight hosts the Keysight Innovation Challenge, in which teams of up to six students design a wireless IoT device that monitors carbon neutrality at the corporate site, multi-site, or community level. The devices must be easy to use by a non-expert and be able to securely handle sensitive data. This year, the company required each team to be led by a woman and to have at least equal representation of female and male students.

“It helps ensure a diverse pipeline of talent,” said Renee Morad, Innovation Challenge lead at Keysight Technologies. “The contest attracts students around the world who are passionate about their engineering studies, their future careers, and about innovating to address global issues. We host the Challenge to inspire the next generation of engineers. It’s amazing to see the concepts students create to tackle a global challenge like helping the world reach net zero. Students are given a global platform for their big ideas to shine, and we’re offered a glimpse of the promising talent of the future.”

fig. 1: Marie Hattar, senior vice president and CMO at Keysight, and Daniel Bogdanoff award a prize in the 2019 Keysight Innovation Challenge to a team of students from MIT.

Like the Renesas contest and many other university-level contests in the industry, the Keysight competition has gone virtual in the wake of the global pandemic. Notably, the Keysight Innovation Challenge has a direct link to the company’s HR department: the winners, who will be announced in September, receive a $30,000 cash prize as well as informational interviews with the company for potential internships and job opportunities.

This year’s contest attracted 52 teams, including 2,100 registrants from 106 companies. The finalists designed a cloud-integrated pollution analyzer, a monitoring device for fuel efficiency and emission consciousness, a sensor that monitors eight greenhouse gasses in real time, a device that monitors carbon emissions and identifies the best sequestration strategy, an autonomous carbon monitoring drone, and a carbon dioxide monitor that attaches to automobiles and bicycles.

Companies that do not create their own contests often partner with universities or other organizations to sponsor competitions. David Junkin, program management director for the Cadence’s US academic partnerships, said the company has entered into university and conference partnerships for contests related to tool usage, software development, and design development.

Junkin said many events are typically not leveraging specific EDA tools, but instead are encouraging students to address problems that are representative of the challenges that Cadence is solving for customers. “We have offered both full-time employment and internships for some of the winning students from these competitions all around the world.”

Companies like Cadence also provide technology and training for student competitions that do not involve an organizational partnership or sponsorship. Junkin said Cadence tools have been used to design hydrofoils for an electric boat racing team at the University of Michigan and solar vehicles for a team at North Carolina State University, among other projects.

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