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STA's Mixed Signal ASIC Technology Powers Wireless Credit Card Reader

Handheld PCs, PDAs and smart cell phones are showing up in new applications every day. These new products are made possible by the adoption of wireless technology and the internet. Taxi and delivery services, vendors at fairs and swap meets and many other mobile merchants are now able to accept credit cards in the field.

Semtek Corp, a San Diego based company that manufactures credit card readers, was developing a new product. “Our new reader had to be small, very low power and low cost,” remarked Dennis Mos, VP Sales and Marketing at Semtek.

Size, power and cost are all benefits of ASIC technology; however, developing an ASIC, particularly a Mixed Signal ASIC, can be expensive and time consuming. Such an undertaking may prove especially risky for new product like Semtek’s wireless credit card reader. Many engineering managers are of the mind that ASIC’s are best left to the “Big Boys.” And considering the high cost of tools, masks and fabrication they are probably correct, but not completely.

A unique ASIC process developed by System To ASIC provided Semtek with the Mixed-Signal technology they needed, at a cost far less than that of standard cells or a full custom IC. According to Douglas Shorb, Vice President of Sales at System to ASIC, Inc. (STA) our customers do not have to pay exorbitant development cost or inflated unit prices because only the last few steps of the manufacturing process are custom. This means that no single customer bears the entire design and manufacturing cost.

At first Semtek, like many other companies, couldn’t imagine that an ASIC would work for them. Having just started production on the new credit card reader, the initial expectation was that somewhere around 50,000 units would be manufactured in the first year. While there were a lot of components on the tightly packed PCB, and power consumption was higher than they had wanted, the new product would do well in the market, and cost reduction would be considered after production volumes increased.

“It takes quite a few analog parts to read a three track credit card” explains Clay von Mueller, Vice President of Engineering at Semtek. After discussing the design with the team at STA, Semtek decided to take a closer look at using an ASIC in their new product. The goal was to eliminate 55 components, including 10 amplifiers, reducing cost by enough that the project could pay for itself in its first year.

“Developing this ASIC was much easer than I expected,” notes Von Mueller. “We gave System To ASIC a copy of the schematic and our wish list. Within a few days we received a block diagram for our new chip, including the development cost, unit price, schedule and even an ROI calculation to help with the financial analysis.” Controlling every aspect of the chip’s operation was critical in meeting Semtek’s low power requirements. Taking advantage of the fact that credit card readers need to be fully powered only during actual card swipe, most sections of the chip were turned off during sleep mode, while others were placed in a low-power state in order to conserve energy.

With sleep current under control, the team at STA reinvested some of the saved power back into higher performance amplifiers and detection circuitry. Any trade-off between peak performance and stand-by current did not present an issue due to the fact that credit card readers consume almost 95% of their power while sleeping.

System To ASIC delivered prototypes on schedule, just under 4 months. “Our new chip worked right out of the box, sleep current dropped by over 90%, detection accuracy and speed have significantly improved, the ASIC outperformed design expectations in every category” recalls Von Mueller.

Semtek’s new chip allowed the removal of fifty five (55) electronic components, two (2) connectors and an entire PCB assembly. Overall, the ASIC reduced the cost of components by over $3.00, in addition to the savings from reduced manufacturing and test costs.

As promised, the ASIC came in on schedule exactly as quoted, and it paid for itself in less than 6 months. Semtek Innovative Solution has been acquired by VeriFone Systems, Inc.

Semtek Innovative Solution Corp.
System To ASIC , Inc. (STA)