Aaron Partridge

It has been a while since I wrote a blog entry, so I have quite a backlog of things to tell you. First is the news – Deloitte has named SiTime the fastest growing semiconductor company in North America.  We placed #1 in their Fast 500TM rankings for semiconductor companies.

We can dissect what this means in many ways, but I want to look today at what timing is in the semiconductor industry. The semiconductor field is often segmented into digital, analog, and radio. Precision timing has not usually been included in semiconductors but rather was thought of, and rightly so, as a non-semiconductor component. This was right because the quartz companies that dominated in timing were definitely not semiconductor companies. They worked differently, thought differently, and sold their parts differently. Now SiTime is “siliconizing” the timing industry, and as we do that we are creating a new segment in the semiconductor space.

The key is in the verb “to siliconize”. When silicon replaced film in cameras it changed an industry, but it also changed how we use cameras. We began taking more pictures. Our photos improved in quality, our cameras became smaller and more convenient, we no longer had to pay for expensive printing, and we began posting and emailing photos to friends. We siliconized cameras and now we get higher quality, save money, and take more pics. Same thing is happening in timing. We are specifying better quality oscillators, saving money, and using more oscillators. This is all reflected in the timing industry’s numbers: specifications are tightening, prices are falling, and volumes are rising.

In order to build great products one must build a great company. The reason is simple, products do not stand on their own but rather are only valuable in the context of their supplier.

For instance, in the airline industry the products are flights from point A to point B. The context is safety, on-time arrival, availability, and customer service. Unfortunately, many airlines don’t practice all of those. This video is light and fun, but its message is dead serious for airline execs. Harvard Business Review published this study on it.

In the semiconductor industry the context is quality, delivery, price, and support. Customers need chips with great specs, but they also require high reliability, on time delivery, and a compelling price. And if there is a problem, customers need it fixed. At SiTime we make great products, with functions and specifications that are valued by our customers. But just as important, we build them with exceptional quality, deliver them on time, supply them at the industry’s best prices, and fix any potential issues immediately and completely.

Building a great company sounds like a business-school mantra, and it is. Seems intuitive or even obvious, and it is. But it is difficult to get right. In fact, while it is difficult to build great products, it is even more difficult to build a great company. One strives to give customers the best possible experience. But if even a single part of the whole is missing or poorly done then that experience is not a great one.

Today I read an article that called SiTime “the leader in MEMS oscillators”. Not just the technology leader, or quality leader, or volume leader, or price leader, but the leader. That means leading in everything – technology, quality, production, delivery, distribution, price, support, and every other detail that matters to customers.

Striving to do all these things is one of the ways we are building a great company, and we feel it is critical to delivering great products.

Quartz resonators have many desirable properties, but they also show something called “hops and pops”. These set a limit on how precise a frequency one can get from a quartz TCXO.  SiTime’s oscillators don’t show hops and pops.

The reasons crystals do this are not completely understood, but they include surface imperfections, contamination, material interfaces, anchor stress, and spurious resonances. With careful design and fabrication, hops and pops can be reduced but not removed.

The size of these sets a limit on how stable a frequency one can derive from a TCXO. There are other limiting factors in crystals, like compensation error, hysteresis, and retrace – but hops and pops cause abrupt frequency shifts, are unpredictable, and are particularly insidious. This means that a quartz oscillator can switch from one to another frequency suddenly. In high precision TCXOs these steps can be tens to hundreds of parts per billion. That may sound small, but many precision applications like GPS and timing references can fail when this happens.

Getting these hops and pops down to even to a few tens of parts per billion requires highly developed processes that only a handful of quartz companies have. High precision TCXOs with minimum hops and pops are rare and expensive, but still often not good enough. I know of one company that has been buying the world’s best quartz TCXOs and then testing and discarding half of them because of hops and pops. Why not just ask the quartz suppliers to provide oscillators pre-screened? It seems their suppliers couldn’t do that.

But SiTime’s MEMS oscillators don’t show hops and pops. Why is this?

First of all, we use a completely different material system. We build our resonators in silicon, not quartz, and billions of dollars have been invested in silicon to make it the purest and most defect free material in the world. Second, we have very clean resonators. Their surfaces are contamination-free, again because of the billions of dollars invested in silicon process and fabrication. Third, we have far less external interaction with our resonators. We don’t have metal on our resonators or material interfaces, and nothing touches them. Fourth, we build complex three dimensional resonators rather than the simple plates that quartz uses, and therefore we have the design freedom to avoid the spurious edge reflections that plague quartz.

In short, when new technologies replace old technologies, they don’t always just reduce the problems with the old technologies – sometimes they eliminate the problems entirely.  That is what we have done with hops and pops.


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