Testing times for silicon: how test automation can mastermind semiconductor growth
The brains behind modern technology, semiconductors have reached a critical juncture. They play a vital role in an increasingly connected world, yet the sector is compounded by a number of challenges, including supply chain problems and talent shortages. How, then, could automation testing help?
Here, we outline how test automation has the power to play a powerful role in the semiconductor industry’s growth.
It’s a busy time if you’re in the semiconductor industry. From fuelling innovation in digital infrastructure across markets like defence, telecommunications and healthcare, to supporting hyperscalers and cloud service providers as they invest in data centre and network infrastructure, our world is ‘built’ on the capabilities enabled by semiconductors.
The rise of remote working? The uptake of AI? The growth of the electric vehicle market? All of these are shaped by the innovation that these microchips deliver.
Yet, as we’re all acutely aware, the semiconductor industry continues to face a range of barriers slowing down growth prospects. Supply shortages are well documented, and rising geopolitical tensions are being keenly felt. This is all exacerbated by the shortage of semiconductor talent. As the race to localise semiconductor manufacturing gains pace, it’s estimated the workforce will need to grow by more than 1 million skilled specialists by 20301.
67% of semiconductor executive say talent risk remains the top 3 strategic priority for the next three years
KPMG, 18th Annual Global Semiconductor Industry Survey
One key area where gains could be made, however, involves testing processes. Applications such as firmware, drivers, packages, DSP/GPU computing, and board bring-up and compliance can all benefit from test automation.
In fact, one use case highlighted by McKinsey & Company showed test parameter optimisation leveraging digital and analytics led to a 13% reduction in test time2.
So, what is test automation, and how can it deliver true value to your semiconductor business?
Sizing up semiconductors
Automation testing tools track, manage and execute tests, which are written in line with specific scripts. With manual testing vulnerable to human error, automated software testing ensures any issues are found quickly in the software development cycle. A test automation approach limits long-term costs. With unit tests in place before developing production code, you can cut both time and cost in the long run.
Automated testing software increases test coverage, too, so costly bugs can be identified and remedied quickly. Meanwhile, methods such as parallel testing - running multiple automated test scripts at the same time - dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to execute tests.
In short, testing and QA processes should not be yet another barrier to meeting the semiconductor industry’s growth opportunities. As such, test automation can act as something of a game changer for semiconductor businesses smart enough to invest in it.
Automate to innovate
As chip complexity increases, driven by ever-growing numbers of transistors per chip, as well as rising package intricacies, automated testing can remove any unnecessary barriers. This might include systems with low failure rates, so innovation can be delivered faster.
The semiconductor industry is also well-positioned to take advantage of digital twins for testing. The high speed at which products are introduced to the market has meant access to hardware in the early stages of development cycles is not always possible. A digital twin, then, could be used to assist with testing, simulation, monitoring and predictive analysis.
By using a digital twin, developers can test and validate software in a virtual environment, limiting how much they need to depend on physical hardware for testing.
The ultimate aim of test automation for chipmakers should be to bring innovation to market faster. For instance, most hyperscalers and cloud service providers are choosing to focus their attention on digital infrastructure. This is because they can offload standard protocol processing such as networking, storage and security functions to processors other than the CPU. This gives them more capacity and computational power to offer to their customers for less expense. But, the protocols and algorithms implemented by those functions all need to be developed and tested - just one example where automated testing tools could make a pivotal difference.
Putting Mobica to the test
Mobica’s competence and expertise as a firmware and software provider for chips and platforms vendors means we can accelerate the ‘speed to value’ of semiconductor and silicon products to connected (IoT, edge and networks) markets. For example, here’s a project we supported for a multinational semiconductor chip manufacturer.
Fixed-function accelerators are becoming increasingly common in data centre environments to enhance performance, but can overstress general-purpose CPUs. Our client faced the challenge of bringing to market a complex hardware accelerator with many use cases, in which the firmware is written in a customer-specific assembly language. The accelerator also needed to maintain backwards compatibility with the hardware’s older generations.
Our team developed the firmware for a cryptography and compression accelerator, which efficiently exposes hardware-acceleration blocks by using bespoke assembly language. We developed test cases in C++17, creating test frameworks for different versions, and verified implementation correctness using software re-implementations, hardware simulators, FPGAs and silicon.
Your journey to test automation success
The most common error in software testing is untested or broken code, accounting for over 60% of cases3. From security vulnerabilities to software not operating as expected, all of this impacts how others view your business and its capabilities.
See the value of integrating a test automation function into your operations, but don’t know where to start? We’ve created an infographic to help you plot your path to success.
- Establish scope of the test automation in your test strategy document, based on the type of solution needed and its requirements
- Select the right automation tool for your team, aligned with their competencies and your business needs
- Plan, design and strategise
- Set-up the test environment
- Test execution scripts
- Examine and maintain tests
Looking for a little more detail? Our new white paper, which provides the essential how-to guide on how to integrate test automation into your business, is available now.
Don’t delay - claim your complimentary copy now.
1 Deloitte, ‘2023 semiconductor industry outlook’, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/semiconductor-industry-outlook.html
2 McKinsey & Company, ‘How back-end automation can be game changing for chipmakers’, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/semiconductors/our-insights/how-back-end-automation-can-be-game-changing-for-chipmakers
3 99 Firms, ‘Software Testing Statistics’, https://99firms.com/blog/software-testing-statistics/#gref