Somshubro Pal Choudhury talks on the relevance of analogue in the digital age

We may be living in a world that is increasingly represented in digital terms but life in the real world itself is analogue, continuously varying. For instance, sensors, which we use in a range of daily applications, capture signals in analogue form and then convert them to a digital format that is relevant to the particular application.

Founded in 1965, Analog Devices, a U.S. multinational with revenues of over $ 3 billion and 9,000 employees worldwide, is a leader in the field of “signal change conditioning”. This is required in any situation where sensors are used, says Somshubro Pal Choudhury, Managing Director, Analog Devices India. The Indian affiliate employs 280 persons, mostly engineers, at its base in Bangalore. Although the company does not report India-specific financials, Mr. Choudhury told The Hindu that the proportion of global revenues generated from India “is still in single-digit percentages”.

However, he says the change in India’s standing as merely a “low-cost” centre is reflected in the company’s commitment to “double revenues and headcount” within the next few years. Mr. Choudhury, a graduate in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and a Master of Science in computer engineering from North Carolina State University, occupied his current position recently after a stint with Netgear in San Jose.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: What is the relevance of the technologies that you have expertise in?

A: The biggest focus today is on the processor; but every processor, no matter how powerful, depends critically on how it interacts with the world outside. But that world is analogue. Signal conditioning is our bread and butter. Anywhere you have a sensor, those signals are received in analogue form.

Q: But why are you talking analogue in a digital world?

A: The digital world is binary, a discrete world. But in the real, or analogue, world, there are more shades of grey. The challenge is to sense the analogue world and convert it using what we call analogue to digital converters, and then amplify the signals, and get them through a digital signal processor (DSP) for further analysis. Sensors, convertors, amplifiers and DSPs, these are our bread and butter.

In terms of products, we have a 50 per cent market share of the global sale of converters. We play big time in amplifier and RF technologies. It is very likely that you would find Analog Devices components in the mobile phone base stations. We are also very strong in the Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS), which are used in accelerometers and gyroscopes. We are also prominent in the power management integrated circuit (IC) business. These are our core product groups.

We have realised over the years that customers are looking for solutions, to build the entire signal chain or systems. Two years ago, we started to focus on key product segments — industrial instrumentation, healthcare, communications infrastructure, automotive. In automotive, for instance, we are into crash sensors, infotainment, engine control, navigation, battery management and other areas. The industrial instrumentation segment, which contributes more than 40 per cent of overall revenues, includes motor controls, surveillance and security and inverters that are used in renewable energy. A big chunk of this segment is aerospace and military.

In the consumer space, in the professional audio segment, which requires a very high degree of fidelity, we are right there at the very top. We are also there in lens drivers that are used in the high-end digital SLR cameras.

Q: What is the challenge in meeting the needs of a world that is analogue but wants signals in a digital form?

A: The sensing technology has to be pretty accurate. I will give an example. The avionics, using gyroscopes, has to accurately measure the roll of an aircraft. But it is so dynamic in nature that the feedback loop has to be really quick to be useful. In converters, the challenge is to make precise signal samples, and also do them fast. There are also challenges in amplifying the signals after they are digitised. Meeting the requirements of high-performance and high-precision applications is the most important challenge. One has to remember that the quality of the signal is a very important attribute that is coming in from the analogue world. Once you have them digitised, it is mostly a question of processing power.

We have also moved more into packaging technologies. It is no longer the case that a single chip or die will have all the components. But you can fit the different dies in a single package. We have developed many packaging technologies.

Q: What do you do out of India?

A: We started operations in India about 20 years ago. We started focussing on DSP technologies — what we call the Shark and Black Fin technologies. The centre in Bangalore is one of Analog Devices’ Centres of Excellence, focussing on DSP technologies. The latest products in this field are being designed in India. We are not focussed on the hardware here; we also generate the algorithms that run on them. We also have a team of application engineers here who support customers worldwide. A big slice of the silicon design, product testing and engineering, is also done from India.

Twelve years ago, we started work here on mixed signal technologies. Many of the precision and high-speed converters are now being designed from India. Globally, India is no longer seen as merely giving cost advantages. Increasingly, there is demand for designing entire systems in India. Indian designs are now going worldwide.

Q: What is your opinion of the draft policy for the electronics sector?

A: Personally speaking, I am against preferential access [to Indian companies]. I believe more in carrots than sticks (laughs). I would prefer an incentive structure instead of preferential access.