Startup Pyxis Technology Inc. this week will announce plans to field a design-for-manufacturability (DFM)-aware IC router. Whereas other DFM startups are targeting analysis, said chief executive officer Naeem Zafar, "We are the only ones actually implementing and changing the design."
Pyxis (Austin, Texas) promises an IC router that can take in design rules and models from the manufacturing side and intelligently perform such tasks as wire spreading and metal fill during routing, rather than as a postprocessing step.
To make its dream real, Pyxis will end up competing with EDA giants Synopsys, Cadence Design Systems and Magma Design Automation, all of which have their own IC routers.
It's a big challenge, but Pyxis has an impressive lineup of people behind it. Its board of directors includes Cadence founder Jim Solomon and Joe Hutt, a former Magma and Synopsys executive with some 30 years of experience at IBM. The company recently announced a technical advisory board comprising four experts in semiconductor lithography and yield.
Zafar was previously CEO of Silicon Design Systems Inc., and CEO and president of Veridicom Inc. But he may be best-known in EDA through his 11-year involvement with IC emulation provider Quickturn Design Systems. "This [Pyxis] is my sixth startup and it has the most traction I've ever seen," said Zafar, who became the company's CEO in March.
The founders of Pyxis were P.T. Patel, a microprocessor design engineer at Sun Microsystems and IBM; Sharad Mehrotra, an EDA tool developer at Sun and IBM; and Joe Rahmeh, an EDA tool developer at Sun and Monterey Design Systems.
Patel, who led the physical-design effort for the IBM PowerPC family, came up with the idea to start the company, and the three founders set up shop in March 2004.
"We saw that with the move to 65 and 45 nanometers, manufacturing and yield were going to be really problematic," Patel said. "We thought that if we could provide these benefits to designers, the foundry would also benefit."
"I think Pyxis is one of the most promising companies in DFM," said Gary Smith, chief EDA analyst at Gartner Dataquest.
To do nanometer IC design well, it's necessary to bring manufacturing information into the design flow, Zafar said. Equally important is bringing design intent forward into manufacturing. "Until you do that, you brute-force your way through the manufacturing flow," he said.
Currently, said Zafar, people do "simplistic stuff" like wire spreading or double-via insertion after routing. What Pyxis proposes is a flow that can plug a yield model or a chemical-metal-polishing model into the router, and then have the router make intelligent decisions in a way that's largely transparent to the designer.
A DFM router is crucial, Zafar said, because not only is it important to connect wires, but designs also have to print and yield well. That means a router must consider both random and systematic manufacturing variations as well as parametric yield, which ensures that designs will meet timing specs after the wafer is printed.
A DFM router could, for example, consider how wires are printed, how metal thickness varies across a die and how
to avoid critical areas. It could enhance metal shapes and respect high-contrast pitches to make designs less sensitive to manufacturing variation. It could help make a design more tolerant to stepper fluctuations, where illumination and focus may vary. And it could produce metal shapes that make optical proximity correction easier.
Pyxis' solution will start with a placed netlist and go all the way to GDSII output. As such, it could potentially replace routers from Synopsys, Cadence and Magma. "People may not replace them on day one, but eventually they will," Zafar said.
The big EDA vendors are pushing integrated design systems that combine synthesis, placement and routing. The bigger problem, Zafar insists, is connecting physical design to the manufacturing flow.
One question that arises with any DFM approach is where the manufacturing information comes from. Pure-play foundries have been hesitant to share process data with fabless providers. Zafar said that a close partnership with integrated device manufacturers and foundries will be part of Pyxis' strategy.
"We are finding receptivity from the fabs, more than [was the case] a year ago," he said.
While Pyxis will make DFM "as invisible as possible" for chip designers, they will have to learn about the topic, Zafar noted. "The physical designer had to learn about timing analysis five years ago and signal integrity two years ago, and now there will be some expansion of that knowledge. Now they will have to worry about DFM closure."
Pyxis today has a staff of 25. It has raised $5.5 million and is just starting customer engagements with its routing technology.
Zafar said that Pyxis (www.pyxistech.com) will have further announcements before next year's Design Automation Conference.