IP Reuse

Posted: July 16, 2011 in Management
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For the past several years, intellectual property (IP) reuse has been a major topic in many companies. The idea is that a large corporate database of IP will reduce design times and disperse knowledge throughout the company. Rarely do these efforts work. The list of reasons is huge. That doesn’t mean IP reuse can’t work. In certain situations it has had a lot of success. You just have to go into it with your eyes wide open and a bit of a skeptical mindset. The distinguishing characteristic that separates success stories from failures is motivation. If the person doing the work is the person receiving the benefits then it will work. If you are asking people to do work just because it’s the right thing to do then the system will fail. Systems that work follow the rule “He who benefits does the work.” This is best done by looking at the most common structure, which happens to be a failing one, and comparing it to two structures which work.

In the most common system an IP repository is put into place. This might be something as simple as a list of IP and who “owns” it all the way up to complex systems with checkout tracking and automatic notification of updates. The engineer is told to put useful IP into the system. Users of the IP explain all that is needed to make the IP useful. This usually involves long lists of documentation, simulation files and testbench files. I once asked an engineering manager what would be required for reuse within his group. He gave me a long list of items he insisted be present. Now it turned out that this same manager was sitting on a lot of IP that might have corporate-wide use. I contacted him and asked him to please submit it. Of course I asked for the supporting information this manager had said was the minimum set. His immediate reply was that I was nuts. No way was he going to submit all of that. It was too much work. I had hit the fundamental problem. There was no reward for doing the work. Like most organizations, the company rewarded this manager for getting product out the door. It didn’t reward getting IP into the system. The manager loved the idea of grabbing IP if it aided his design efforts but was uninterested in helping others. Sadly, he was correct in his assessment of the reward system. When proposed, IP reuse usually gets shown as a time saver. It is pointed out how much time can be saved by reuse. What isn’t pointed out is the wasted effort getting items into the repository when those items will never be reused. Also not pointed out is that a lot of reuse has usually been going on all ready. People who design related items have been talking to each other be it in the hallway or at lunch and have been sharing. The informal sharing has been productive and efficient albeit undocumented.

In certain companies the design process is such that IP reuse can be done in a natural and efficient way with aligned motivations. A good example is a company which designs a family of large ASICs all of which are different combinations of building blocks with large groups of related products being on the same process. These blocks might include an HDMI input or perhaps a X4 USB2 block. The architect requests the design of different blocks and projects are generated within a group devoted to block design. Placing the block into the repository is no longer a side item with zero recognition. Rather, it represents the culmination of a project. For this block design group, release to manufacturing has been replaced by entry into the repository. There is alignment of interests. Reuse of the blocks is assured since there are defined products for them to go into. There is little waste. Where this works it is a great thing. The problem is that it can only work for certain companies or certain subgroups within companies.

The last example I want to give is something that is ready to be implemented but needs to be done carefully. The key is to make entry into the repository a natural part of the design process requiring little extra effort on the part of the design engineer. If a block doesn’t get reused then there is little lost effort was since little extra time was spent. Engineers don’t rebel because they are just getting their engineering work done as they would if the repository didn’t exist. Where the heavy lifting comes in is on the design flow and engineering software support side. When a design block is started the engineer is asked to classify the block and put in a brief description. Everything else is automatic. The owning design engineer, overall project name, design technology in use, etc. are all noted automatically. A placeholder is put into the IP repository complete with an expected release time based on when the design project should be done. This solves the old problem of parallel development where engineers don’t have insight into what others are working on. Someone needing an HDMI I/O might see one under development that should be done well within his schedule constraints. When the block design is completed it is marked as provisionally done and can be checked out. Once the original design has been checked out completely it is shifted to a verified design status.

I’ll write more on IP reuse in the future and mention some specific software programs that can help. For now I want to summarize what to look at. First, do the company’s products share a similar architecture and process or is the company diversified across many different product types? The answer dramatically affects optimum IP reuse policies. Secondly, corporate culture must be considered. IP reuse requires alignment in culture across the company and a unified message from the top down. The key here is honesty by top management about itself. Remember that the goal is selling product to the customer and not fancy PowerPoint slides or internal metrics. Reuse is a very good thing if you pick the proper shade of gray i.e. an implementation that aids productivity rather than generating lots of work with little return. It can be done.

I have one final thought. IP reuse is different from sharing corporate knowledge. Be careful not to confuse the two. Each can aid the other but they are different.

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