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An In-Depth Visit to the ARM Taiwan CPU Design Center

By Korbin Lan
Published: Dec 17,2015

In September 2015 the ARM CPU Design Center formally opened in Hsinchu, Taiwan. It is not only Taiwan’s first CPU design center but also the first ARM design center in Asia. The center specializes in Cortex-M processor development for IoT use.

After achieving overwhelming success in the cell phone market, ARM is still continuing to expand its applications market, and in addition to cell phone applications moving into the IoT device market is also an important goal. Therefore, the ARM Taiwan CPU design center has attracted the interest of the entire world, and it will play a pioneering role in determining whether or not ARM is successful in the IoT market.

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Currently ARM has four CPU design centers around the world, and the first three are located in Cambridge in England, Texas in the United States, and in France. The center in the United States is responsible for Cortex ARM series processor designs, while the centers in England and France are responsible for Cortex-A and B series processor designs.

The Connection with Taiwan’s Semiconductor Settlement

The ARM Taiwan CPU Design center is located in the Hsinchu Science Park in Taiwan, which is the most important area for Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, and their office is just a few minutes away from major Taiwanese semiconductor companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Ltd. (TSMC) and MediaTek Inc. This is the main reason that ARM chose Taiwan as the location for its design center.

Figure 1 :   The ARM Taiwan CPU Design center is located in the Hsinchu Science Park in Taiwan, which is the most important area for Taiwan’s semiconductor industry.
Figure 1 : The ARM Taiwan CPU Design center is located in the Hsinchu Science Park in Taiwan, which is the most important area for Taiwan’s semiconductor industry.

Nevertheless, this decision was not a part of ARM’s original plan, but rather in response to changing times and needs, including the improvement of Taiwan’s semiconductor technology and the evolution of smart devices, ARM decided to upgrade their plans and make a more positive step.

Back in the year 2000, cell phones were just entering the era of thin designs, and several mobile phones became smash hits, such as the Ericsson T3, the Nokia 6510, and the MOTO CD928, and had strong sales globally. At that time ARM formally established a office in Taipei to market and popularize their CPU technology.

Ten years later ARM had already dominated the smart phone processor market and were already thinking about crossing over into other application markets.

Considering their positive relationship with Taiwanese semiconductor companies, especially their advanced manufacturing cooperation with TSMC, and the expansion of GPU operations, ARM decided to take another step in serving their clients and expand their areas of collaboration and planned to establish their engineering department in Hsinchu.

After establishing an engineering department in Hsinchu, ARM’s cooperative relationship with TSMC became even closer, and during this time period they successfully completed one joint project after another, with collaborators including MediaTek and TSMC. The success of these collaborations gave ARM the confidence to launch even bigger projects.

On the other hand, with the rising power of Internet of Things (IoT) applications, low power manufacturing became the main avenue of development for chip development, and TSMC’s low power manufacturing perfectly satisfied this demand. Meanwhile, Taiwan became a strategic location for the manufacturing and design of IoT devices.

Consequently, in 2014 ARM decided to establish a CPU design center that would specialize in IoT applications.

Local integration -- Overcoming European and Asian Cultural Differences

Following nearly a year of preparation and construction, the ARM Hsinchu design center was formally opened in September 2015. In addition to being an important investment into the IoT market, it is also an important stronghold for ARM in Asia.

Nevertheless, the design center and the office are very different in nature. The office is generally just responsible for implementing the corporation’s policies, including commercial activities for sales and marketing. However, the design center must go a step further in integrating with local talent and culture before developing products that meet ARM’s standards because CPU design is an especially complex task.

Tim Whitfield, who is in charge of the ARM Hsinchu design center, admits that communication is truly a major challenge, especially in terms of work culture and language.

“The ARM’s culture is very important. The way engineer work, I believe it can improve technological development; We want to bring that culture over and we want bring in local culture.” Tim said.

Tim is the Director of Engineering at ARM Taiwan, and he has been in Taiwan for four years, making him no stranger to Taiwan’s culture. When ARM decided to establish a department of engineering in Taiwan, he was dispatched to Taiwan. In addition to smoothly completing the establishment of the engineering department, he also led the Taiwan team in completing a number of excellent projects for clients.

But developing CPU entails difficulties that are several times more complex and are much more closely related to culture. Unless the team has excellent communication and interactions, it is difficult to bring its ability 100% into play. This is especially the case because this design center is ARM’s first in Asia, and the European and Asian cultural differences are apparent from the inside to the outside.

A conservative and ambiguous attitude as an example.

Tim states that compared with American people, British people are more implicit and conservative, and there are some things that they will not say directly. However, Taiwanese people are even more conservative. Especially in meetings, they will not openly state their opinions; therefore, there is a large drop in effectiveness when carrying out affairs, which makes him feel 100% frustrated.

Figure 2 :  Tim began to make use of time outside of meetings to communicate with the team members, and he called it “coffee time.
Figure 2 : Tim began to make use of time outside of meetings to communicate with the team members, and he called it “coffee time.

After recognizing this difference, Tim began to make use of time outside of meetings to communicate with the team members, and he called it “coffee time.” Through these occasions that were not formal or public, he could gain an understanding of the team members’ real ideas and opinions and learn about the difficulties of their missions.

“People not usually express what they think, sometimes they do think about that but they don’t say it.” said GR Chen, Engineering Manager, CPU Group, ARM. He is responsible for the majority of CPU personnel recruitment in Taiwan, and he serves as a cultural communication bridge.

Language is another obstacle.

Generally speaking, for everyday dialog and administrative affairs communicating in English is not much of a problem. However, CPU design projects involve using a lot of abstruse terms that Taiwanese engineers often do not know how to use, or after expressing themselves they are not sure whether or not they were understood. As a result, the speed of implementing projects was very slow in the initial stages.

However, Tim states that although language is an obstacle, it should not be an excuse for falling behind schedule. This is because he believes that nobody can hide behind language and employees must speak out to clarify the job for every problem or difficulty. After all “openness” is an important aspect of ARM’s culture.

Taiwan is very far from England. It takes nearly 15 hours to fly there, and it has a vastly different climate, language, and culture. However, Tim did not have many problems adjusting to life in Taiwan.

“Working in Taiwan is just like working in other places,” said Tim.

Figure 3 :   The facilities of ARM Taiwan CPU design center.
Figure 3 : The facilities of ARM Taiwan CPU design center.

He found it very easy to get used to Taiwan’s climate and food and drink. Aside from the scorching hot summers, Tim thinks that the environment is delightful compared to England. His family also moved to Taiwan to live with him, and currently besides having less friends, he feels that he has had no problems getting used to life in Taiwan.

On a certain level he is already a local Taiwanese worker, and just like the majority of commuters, Tim drives from Taipei to Hsinchu each morning and drives back home to Taipei after work in the evening, and he spends weekends and holidays with his family.

Other expatriate employees should also be fine and even better accustomed to life in Taiwan than Tim. Everyone truly appreciates the working environment in Taiwan.

Cultivating Local Talent to Create CPUs in Taiwan

There are currently fifty people in ARM’s Taiwan CPU design team, and four are senior CPU designers that have been stationed overseas from England or the United States. Tim is one of these designers, and in addition to CPU research and development, their main job is teaching their professional knowledge of CPU design to the Taiwanese team.

Tim stated that ARM places a great deal of importance on cultivating local talent; therefore, dispatching senior designers to Taiwan helps them to pass on ARM’s ideas and technology for CPU development to the Taiwan team.

He emphasized that integrating local culture and talent is extremely important, and it is one of the major goals of establishing an overseas design center. ARM especially hopes to be able to make good use of local talent to develop products which meet ARM’s standards.

Figure 4 :   The facilities of ARM Taiwan CPU design center.
Figure 4 : The facilities of ARM Taiwan CPU design center.

Tim gave a high evaluation of the quality of Taiwanese talent. He pointed out that Taiwan has plenty of engineering human resources, and their work ethic and attitude is very good. Consequently, ARM has had no problems recruiting talent in Taiwan. It has just been the training process after recruitment that has required attention and concern. Because Taiwan has excellent engineering talent but lacks CPU design experience, it lacks a comprehensive system for design thought.

“They will handle the blocks that are specifically pointed out very well; however, they will not consider other problems on the periphery,” said Tim.

He also stated that it is actually an interlocking system, for example I/Q wireless signal processors and power supplies. Therefore, CPU engineers cannot just think about one block, They must think about the whole, and Taiwanese engineers are more lacking in this element.

Figure 5 :   Tim Whitfield, the Director of Engineering at ARM Taiwan and GR Chen, Engineering Manager, CPU Group, ARM.
Figure 5 : Tim Whitfield, the Director of Engineering at ARM Taiwan and GR Chen, Engineering Manager, CPU Group, ARM.

In addition to upgrading the quality of local CPU personnel in Taiwan, ARM is also attempting to collaborate with Taiwanese universities in Hsinchu. They hope to be able to assist the universities to create CPU design curriculum that will enable students to learn CPU design through professional practice at school. To this end, students or graduates with CPU design expertise can serve as interns at ARM and contribute their skills.

Although at first local electronics engineering personnel in Taiwan lacked CPU design experience and they did not have enough systematic integration of thought, with accumulated development experience and technology inherited from ARM, the ARM Taiwan CPU design center development is quite exciting.

“The next-generation M processors will be entirely designed and created in Taiwan,” said Tim.

However, he also stated that currently there is no time schedule. This is because they do not have to look at the ability of the CPU design team in Taiwan, but rather watch the market development to set time tables. However, they have a great deal of confidence that the Taiwanese team will be able to perform well.

(TR/ Phil Sweeney)

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