Combining innovation and unrivaled engineering knowledge, with flexibility and total commitment, in semiconductor physical design
IC Mask Design was founded in 2002 and operates out of premises in Limerick, Maynooth, and Milan with plans to expand to Cambridge in the coming months.
The work of the company is part of a highly specialized technological sector, servicing the needs of semiconductor industry organizations at all levels from start-ups to the largest multinationals. During this period of uncertainty in the Covid 19 crisis, IC Mask Design is continuing to support its customers and maintain business as usual.
Services fall into two broad categories, the first being integrated circuit (IC) layout design.
The company also provides highly specialized layout training courses, which range from an introduction to analog layout to fin field-effect transistor (FinFET) layout techniques. Comprehensive outsourcing services are provided for semiconductor companies when they experience an IC layout skills shortage or an unexpected increase in demand.
In those situations, IC Mask Design will work with such a company to complete projects to the highest standards – on time and within budget. All outsourced work is guaranteed by the company and is underwritten by a depth of experience in every leading technology node, foundry, and Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tool.
An IC layout engineer is the link between design and manufacturing, taking the schematics that have been prepared and simulated by design engineering to create the layout or ‘physical design’ of a silicon chip, which in turn will become a vital component of a new product.
‘We have always concentrated on leading-edge technologies,’ says Fergal Brosnan, co-founder and CEO. ‘We have to be ahead of the curve in terms of technological expertise and innovation, drawing on the expertise of our highly qualified and experienced engineers in servicing the needs of the world’s leading manufacturing companies.
‘In recent years the level of demand on our skills has increased dramatically as technologies have transitioned to different and more complex nodes, while the scale of products being manufactured has also increased greatly. So innovation is a key factor in everything we do. At the same time costs have increased dramatically, so that it can cost millions to manufacture a new chip.
But while the footprint of chips may be getting smaller, there is always the challenge to deliver greatly increased functionality, with a focus now on large-scale application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) – setting new and exciting challenges for our layout engineers.’
The company looked to export markets to develop its business practically from the start. With the downturn a decade ago IC Mask Design developed vital contacts outside Ireland, which kept things buoyant – especially in the UK, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and in America. Despite the implications of Brexit, the company will continue to engage closely with its client base in the UK and will be largely unaffected by the outcome.
By remaining at the cutting edge of innovation within its specialist field, the company now serves a worldwide customer base spanning Europe and the United States. Last year only some 6 per cent of business came from Irish sources.
Over the past eighteen years, IC Mask Design has worked with most of the top ten global semiconductor corporations and has helped over 200 technology companies in 35 countries. Because of the high level of confidentiality involved in its operations, the company is not at liberty to reveal the identities of the companies with which it is developing innovative designs, but previous business partners listed on the company website include Xilinx (Ireland), IDT (Germany) and ON Semiconductor (Ireland and USA).
In a world of constant change, IC Mask Design has seen a hugely increased demand for its services and according to Fergal Brosnan the company is now looking to expand its team through a recruitment drive that will see a near doubling of its workforce by the end of 2020 to service operations in Ireland, the UK and in Italy, following the opening of the Milan operation.
‘Finding the right people produces its own challenges,’ says Fergal. ‘We will be working closely with Irish universities to attract the best graduates, along with finding people internationally with the required level of training and experience. As part of that process we will be looking for potential abroad and at home for resources of exceptional talent in our sector. Our business lends itself to remote working and some 98 per cent of our operations are carried out in this way. We like to create a work/life balance for our people and it’s quite normal for our staff to work from home two days out of every working week’.
Co-founder and CTO Ciaran Whyte identifies the three core areas that have contributed to the continuing success of the company. ‘Our first focus is quality. Our ISO 9001:2015 certification is the most advanced standard of its kind and focuses on quality management systems and performance. With this standard, we are consistently producing services that meet world-class standards.’
‘As the company is always striving to deliver the best quality service to our customers achieving this industry benchmark standard is a key requirement of our business strategy.
Efficiency is another key factor in our success. In order to be innovative, we need to be quicker and better than our competitors. At the same time, it’s vital that we maintain a strong focus on our exceptional design skills’.
Ciaran is keen to stress the creative element in the work of IC Mask Design, which may surprise some people. ‘If, for example, five people are trying to arrive at a solution to a very complex task, it’s not uncommon to arrive at five different viable solutions, so creativity is an important element in our work’.
The importance of Enterprise Ireland support
‘Enterprise Ireland has provided us with excellent support from the start, especially in the area of research, which has helped us enormously in expanding into overseas markets’, says Ciaran.
‘Our business has benefited substantially from the services of Enterprise Ireland over the past eighteen years,’ agrees Fergal Brosnan.
‘Their support has been outstanding. Through Enterprise Ireland we have been able to gauge exactly what’s happening in the worldwide marketplace.
Their financial support and market research grants have also helped us to grow rapidly. And the local knowledge they bring to the table is fantastic. I completed the year-long Professional Development Diploma in International Selling, which is accredited by TU Dublin, and found it very stimulating and beneficial. In particular, it was wonderful to meet people with similar operational problems to our own. Through that course, we were able to formulate our future growth strategy . . . not dissimilar from writing a new business plan’.
Looking to the future one market offering strong growth possibilities is Israel, which is riding on a global surge in high-tech investment. Various new technologies in areas such as automotive and artificial intelligence (AI) have lured investment capital, while cybersecurity – a particular strength of Israeli firms – continues to attract financing.
These technological breakthroughs have created enhanced demands for new categories of silicon chips and processors to deal with new challenging and complicated tasks, calling on the specialist skills provided by IC Mask Design.