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In my career as a professor at IIT Delhi and later as a professional in Texas Instruments, I have been associated with a large number of IEEE events. I have no track of how many! The flagship international conferences which I have attended include the IEEE Design Automation Conference, the International Test Conference, the VLSI Test Symposium, the European Design Automation Conference, and the International Conference on Parallel Processing, the High-Performance Computing conference, and the VLSI Design conference.  I feel privileged to have presented papers at these conferences. I also feel privileged that I have contributed to the organization of a large number of IEEE conferences in the capacity of General Chair, Program Chair, or Publications Chair.  I have also attended a few conferences simply as an attendee. No matter what my role was, the conferences have been a great learning experience and have contributed to my growth in some form or another.  I can say the same thing about the IEEE seminars I have attended or organized.

In Oct 2017, I attended the International Test Conference after a gap of several years. The conference helped me in getting an excellent overview of emerging trends in the area of testing of semiconductors. For those who are new to the area of hardware testing, let me give a quick overview. Semiconductor manufacturers have to test every product that they sell into the market in order to assure quality and reliability. The cost and complexity of testing have grown over the years since entire systems are being integrated into a single chip.  Modern systems include digital logic, memory and analog components, each of which demands a different type of testing.  The International Test Conference is an annual event that discusses recent trends in VLSI test. Some of the industry trends in testing are:

  • Testing of Automotive ICs
  • Use of machine learning (and possibly even Artificial Intelligence) to reduce test cost and increase test quality

A spike in the use of ICs for various control functions in automobiles has resulted in concerns about quality, reliability, authenticity, safety, and security.

Quality and Reliability

Defective Parts Per Million (DPPM or DPM) has been a measure of the quality of parts for years. In case of automotives,  the customers demand close to zero DPM, or ‘Defective Parts Per Billion.’ Since automotives are used for 15+ years, the reliability of their building blocks and frequent testing are important. Reliability is related to the warranty that companies provide to their products. What is the probability that a product will continue to function satisfactorily after (say) 5 years? Chips in use tend to age with time. Defects that did not exist in the chip at the time of manufacturing may appear over time due to numerous physical phenomena such as hot carrier injection, negative bias temperature instability, and electromigration.   Stress testing (testing in the presence of temperature stress or voltage stress) is used to assess reliability.  Temperature/voltage stress is used to accelerate the phenomenon of aging.  Stress testing can also help eliminate chips that suffer from “infant mortality” syndrome.  Stress testing is expensive to carry out, and the use of machine learning for reducing stress testing has become important.

Safety, Authenticity, Security

Functional safety requirements are a concern when the IC is used in applications such as industrial robots or automotives. Who is responsible if an equipment malfunction were to cause injury or loss of life? Standards such as ISO26262 were repeatedly discussed in the conference, including a pre-conference tutorial. The authenticity of parts poses another challenge. What if a third party begins to manufacture a poor-quality IC and sells it under the brand name of a well-known semiconductor manufacturer? Use of techniques such as physically unclonable function (PUF) will be important to curtail the “fake IC” syndrome. Security is a concern since the design, manufacturing, and testing of semiconductor components happen in a geographically distributed fashion and IP from a number of different companies are integrated into the same chip.  With so many engineers working on the same product, how can we ensure that there are no trap doors or Trojan horses that compromise the security of information?

A conference such as ITC provides learning opportunities for both a beginner and an expert. A beginner may attend a tutorial to get an overview of a subject matter expert.  Keynote talks, embedded tutorials, and panel discussions are also ideally suited for beginners. I benefited from the tutorials by Prof. Mehdi Tahoori and Dr. Mariarni & Dr. Zorian. I enjoyed the keynote talk by  Robert Klosterboer (ON Semi). I also benefited from the post-conference workshop on “Automotive Reliability and Test.” There were several excellent paper presentations that I attended on topics related to safety, reliability, ECC memory test, and hardware security/trust. As always, ITC paper presentations were attended by a packed roomful of participants and very meaningful Q&A followed every talk.  Industry participants also benefited from the exhibits of test products. It was also an opportunity for me to connect with a number of my fellow researchers and friends.

My Takeaways

Apart from the learning, I obtained from the conference, how else did I extract value from attending ITC 2017? To begin with, as a member of IEEE, I got a $200 discount on registration fee.  I received access to the technical papers of the conference. After the conference, I and three of my colleagues (who also attended the conference) made presentations on our learnings from ITC to several of our colleagues who work in the area of Test & Validation.  We had great discussions on the trends in Test and an opportunity to review the industrial practices.  Later, when I visited MNIT, Jaipur in December and took part in a faculty development program on Verification & Test, I shared my learnings from the conference with the participants.  

Many IEEE conferences are held by IEEE Bangalore Section and the IEEE Bangalore chapters of the various societies. In addition, the chapters/section also provide support to conferences that are held in Bangalore and other regions supported by the section. You will benefit by attending at least one conference in a year.  There is no doubt that you will have to invest in terms of the registration fee which may be around Rs 2500 per day of the conference. However, when you look at the value you get in return, the fee will look reasonable.  You can check with your parent institution if they can sponsor your registration and travel expenses. Often, such support is available only to a limited number of people in a year, and organizations will prioritize those who have papers accepted for presentation. Even when you do not have a paper to present, there is a lot of value in attending a conference as a delegate and learning from the experts. You will meet many fellow attendees – talking to them can be an eye-opener. When you network with people who have similar interests, you may be able to form research/academic collaborations.  You may even find out about opportunities for internship and jobs! And last but not the least (my young friends would love this) you may get to click selfies with celebrities at IEEE conferences!

Prof. Jacob Abraham of UT Austin was honored at the International Test Conference for his contributions to the area of Test

Since ITC is held close to the time of Halloween, giant pumpkins were visible everywhere!

Dr. C P Ravikumar

" C.P. Ravikumar is the Director of Technical Talent Development at TI, India. He obtained a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering from the Department of EE-Systems at University of Southern California (1991). He obtained an M.E. in Computer Science from Indian Institute of Science (1987) and a B.E. in Electronics from Bangalore University (U.V.C.E.,1983). He has published over 250 research papers in the areas of VLSI physical design, VLSI test, parallel processing, electronic design automation and embedded systems in peer-reviewed journals and conferences.  He has won three best paper awards in international conferences of the IEEE."

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