Microelectronics in Egypt

Summary:  

An important role that this magazine can play; it is a local magazine concerned with the Egyptian microelectronics market, experiences and problems. It should be a forum to share innovative ideas and discussions from different parties of the ecosystem. It should avoid being a mere relay of advanced technology by copying interesting articles.

Looking back fifteen years ago, one should be proud of the microelectronics industry in Egypt right now.  At that time, the first chip out of the Integrated Circuits lab, Ain Shams University, was sent for fabrication at the CMP using the 0.6 micron process technology.  The free ALLIANCE[1] educational VLSI design system was employed for RTL simulation, synthesis, placement and routing.  A DELL workstation occupying a complete bench was used.  Students watched those working on that system as if driving a space station.  Despite the fact that the IC was not 100% functional, it was quite an experience.

We should compare this to what is happening right now; several design companies exist in the market dealing with a broad spectrum of design aspects ranging from RF, analog and mixed-signal to digital front-end and back-end design.  Many successful tapeouts are done each year using state-of-the-art technologies, and complex IPs are developed and delivered to customers worldwide.  Even, some of the most advanced design software and CAD tools are developed in the country.  This is all a dream coming true for anyone working in that field.  However, it is still a limited industry; design teams are still of small numbers, experience is hard to find, design houses are small and medium enterprises (SME), mostly working in isolated islands.

How can microelectronics in Egypt grow to the next level, that of a mature industry?  In order to answer this question, we should go through the electronics ecosystem.  This includes not only existing companies, but also Universities, government initiatives and the local market.

Companies have to start sharing ideas to grow their business.  Eitisal[2] is a good initiative to group companies working in the information, telecommunications, electronics and software field together.  There is a special electronics division.  Companies are encouraged to use this framework more efficiently to communicate together in order to promote the microelectronics industry in the country.

The main problem facing such industry and might limit future expansion in Egypt is the scarcity of experienced resources.  This is badly felt by existing companies each time a new comer enters the market and starts pulling out their valuable resources.  The only way to overcome such limitation is to reinforce the source of qualified engineers, i.e. the University.  It is not a secret that among the existing companies, those who were able to scale their business are those with very tight cooperation with academia.  Summer training and graduation projects are powerful tools to prepare future engineers to this experience-intensive field. Companies underestimating these opportunities will sooner or later face human resources problem.  It is also clear that without up-to-date education and state-of-the-art research, chances to grow the VLSI business will always remain bounded.  While it is the job of University professors to lead these two activities, we find that many companies in this field have University staff among their co-founders, management, or employ professors as consultants.  Professors on the other hand do not have much choice to survive depending only on the University income.  This situation is fine as an intermediate phase, but on the long run it is not sustainable.  With depleted resources, Universities will never be able to perform its role as a human education factory without full-time dedicated staff.

At the same time, different research teams at the Universities must direct their research to serve existing companies, if they want to attract them for a win-win research relationship.  They must identify their points of strength and their capabilities in order to know how to put them into use.  This is actually what we are trying to do currently at the Integrated Circuits lab at Ain Shams University, through what we call the “Industry Interaction Initiative”. Companies will be invited to share ideas, to introduce them to lab capabilities and resources, to get their feedback on the education curriculum and to brainstorm together on possible cooperation paths.  Recently, the government has created the mechanisms to make this cooperation possible by providing several ways to fund research.  Those interested should refer to the ITAC[3], the STDF[4], the RDI[5] and the NTRA[6] web sites.

In fact, the role of the government in the electronics industry in any country is crucial.  In addition to the above research initiatives, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has a considerable investment in what is called the “Microelectronics Science Park”.  It is currently being constructed near Heliopolis, Cairo.  Besides the Electronics Research Institute, the building will also host a MEMS cleanroom, a Microelectronics Services Center, and an industrial section to group electronics companies and startups.  This would be a huge leap into the future of our country.  This project is scheduled to be ready in an 18-month period of time.  All parties should be ready to make use and support it.  Otherwise it will only be a ‘park’.

The microelectronics industry is a strategic cornerstone.  It builds an essential expertise for the country development.  From an economic viewpoint, it results in high added-value products that are sold in the global market with very good returns.  It also absorbs and retains high caliber engineers in a creative work that satisfies their capabilities instead of searching for jobs outside Egypt.  However, the best value to the country would be in using this accumulated expertise to solve local problems, rather than going after global one-size-fits-all products.  The best solution for any problem always comes out from those who live the situation and feel the needs.  This is real creativity.  We are not there yet, and the road might be still long.  But this can expand the role of microelectronics from a mere economic one to social and political grounds where its effect on the daily life of Egyptians can be appreciated.  Such applications lie at the system-level.  In Egypt, companies are currently designing block or macro-block level IPs.  This is essential to gain the required experience.  The next step is to own a product, but down the road real value resides at the system-level.  Nowadays, systems are not only a pure hardware issue, but there is also a lot of software, or what we call embedded systems.  It is not a surprise that companies like Freescale and HP, known for their long history of hardware design, have recently shifted their focus to software and embedded systems design.

From all the above, I see an important role that this magazine can play; it is a local magazine concerned with the Egyptian microelectronics market, experiences and problems.  It should be a forum to share innovative ideas and discussions from different parties of the ecosystem.  It should avoid being a mere relay of advanced technology by copying interesting articles.  Information is now accessible but innovation, proactive communications and creative ideas are what we need at this great moment of our history.

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Links:

1.http://www-asim.lip6.fr/pub/alliance/

2.http://www.eitesal.org/

3.http://www.itida.gov.eg/En/OurPrograms/ResearchInnovation/ITacademiaCollaboration/

4.http://www.stdf.org.eg/

5.http://www.rdi.eg.net/

6.http://www.tra.gov.eg/english/DPages_DPagesDetails.asp?ID=472&Menu=1

 

Muhammad Dessouky

Associate Professor,
Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt

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