Is A/D-converter research becoming a purely academic exercise?

Figure 1. ADC research origin (first author). Absolute amount of papers.

Figure 2. ADC research origin (first author). Relative amount of papers.

Is A/D-converter research becoming a purely academic exercise? Well, looking at the statistics for scientific ADC implementation papers shown in the two graphs above, that certainly seems to be the future for open A/D-converter research. What are the implications, and does it matter?

Figure 1 shows the number of published ADC papers over time, separated into type of origin, as determined by the affiliation of the first author {AcademicInstituteIndustry}. Although a simplification, it is believed to be a fairly accurate indication of where most of the work was done. The term Institute is referring to entities that are neither universities nor traditional companies, i.e., organizations like IMEC. Figure 2 shows the relative amount of contributions from each sector, based on the same data.

Where is corporate ADC research going?

Figure 2 paints a very clear picture: The industrial “market share” of scientific  publications has had a noisy but linear negative trend almost from the start. If the trend holds – and there are actually no signs in the graph that it won’t – there will be no scientific ADC papers from industry published after year 2020–2025! At least not with the first author being from the industry.

I find that quite remarkable and slightly counter-intuitive. Aren’t academic scientists the first to explore the un-explored, and after having spent a lot of time weeding out the less fruitful approaches, they finally come up with something that works? After which the industry wakes up and jumps on the bandwagon? The ADC field appears to do exactly the reverse: After initially been doing 100% of the work, the industry is now gradually letting the universities take over the field.

We are talking about the open research literature here, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no activity within the companies. It just isn’t getting out. So, what do you think:

  • Does the industry feel that there is nothing more to improve or research? If so, why can academic papers still get published?
  • Is the industry increasingly putting a lid on their research to survive the competition?
  • Or is it just a better business to focus on shifting parts, while letting universities innovate and then pick new solutions as they get published?

Quality – not quantity?

On the other hand, industrial contributions report excellent results. A state-of-the-art figure-of-merit (FOM) is a dream target for many research groups. In view of the dwindling industrial publication count, it is interesting to note that the performance of top industrial contributions does not seem to suffer: The overall best Thermal FOM for Nyquist converters was reported for a SAR design by Analog Devices [1], and the scientifically most sought-after world record “Walden FOM” was reported by a group of authors where three out of six were also affiliated with companies (Philips and Axiom IC) [2].


Additional info

The data set used is from an exhaustive survey [3] of ADC papers in journals and at conferences central to the field. After a recent update, the survey covers almost 1600 scientific papers or nearly all ADC implementations ever measured and reported scientifically since 1974. Hence the historical trends shown here should be definitive.

Want to know more?

Do you want to know more about ADC research trends? Are you making strategic decisions relating to data converter technology, research or business? The plots in Figure 1 and Figure 2 are taken from a larger report on ADC research trends that I’m currently working on for ADMS Design AB. The report will be available for purchase after the summer. It will survey ADC research trends from many different angles, and present valuable and truly unique information that is not offered anywhere else.

If you wish to be notified when the report is available, or want to know more, you can contact me at ADMS Design AB.

ADMS Design AB also offers full-custom surveys relating to commercial and scientific ADC trends, technology and business.


[1] C. P. Hurrell, C. Lyden, D. Laing, D. Hummerston, and M. Vickery, “An 18 b 12.5 MS/s ADC with 93 dB SNR”, IEEE J. Solid-State Circuits, Vol. 45, pp. 2647-2654, Dec., 2010.

[2]    M. van Elzakker, E. van Tuijl, P. Geraedts, D. Schinkel, E. Klumperink, and B. Nauta, “A 1.9μW 4.4fJ/Conversion-step 10b 1MS/s charge-redistribution ADC,” Proc. of IEEE Solid-State Circ. Conf. (ISSCC), San Francisco, California, pp. 244–245, Feb., 2008.

[3] B. E. Jonsson, “A survey of A/D-converter performance evolution,” Proc. of IEEE Int. Conf. Electronics Circ. Syst. (ICECS), Athens, Greece, pp. 768–771, Dec., 2010.


8 responses to “Is A/D-converter research becoming a purely academic exercise?

  1. Hi, Mr. Passion, interesting statistic data/figure!
    I’m thinking of some other reason to the poll.
    One item in your poll is ‘they do less research nowadays’. Probably they are still doing same amount of research, however, compared with the increase of academic research, it seems they do less. I remember that once a question ‘Why is the data converter market dominated by six US companies?’ was proposed in your blog. This question manifests somewhat that the number of converter-producing companies are quite constant. However, when we look at the academic world, more people are trying to be involved in the data converter business ( like me(: ).
    Another reason could be that it’s relatively cheaper to fabricate data converters with faster delivery time in universities these days compared to the old IC time. The idea-to-publication time is shortened, which makes academic ideas have more chance to compete in solid publications (with chip measurement results).
    If I’m wrong, welcome to correct me.

  2. Good points, Dai! The absolute paper count from industry is actually dropping slightly too, but as you say it is the increased output from acedemia that has changed the picture most.

    Nice angle with the constant (and low) number of companies being active in the field. Even if they do a lot of designs, they’re not like to write a paper about every singe variation in product portfolio [they need that time to compose data sheets instead 😉 ], whereas if the same amount of circuits was spread over 30 companies rather than six(five) and each would publish their best attempts every year we’d see more papers from industry.

    I also agree with you that the better channels for academic prototypes could be part of the academic paper boom.

    So, nothing to correct …

    And it is nice to observe the “boom”, and all of you new scientists that comes with it.

  3. Dai, I’ve updated the poll with your nomination as the first item. The system might block your IP from casting another vote if you voted already, but now at least other readers have the option.

  4. Here is some additional speculation:

    Every organization tries to achieve certain goals:
    – Academia deliver well-trained professionals and knowledge to society
    – Industry tries to make a profit out of selling stuff

    These goals have not changed much over the last decades. There has however been a change how contributions to these goals are measured. More and more, such measurements are required to be objective, fast and on the level of an individual.
    – For academia, papers kind of meet these requirements.
    – In industry however, it is difficult to tell how much and how fast an individual scientific paper helps to sell stuff. Industry is working on this though. Sometimes when I read a paper from industry, I get the impression that it is a data sheet in disguise: plenty of information on what is for sale while highlighting only some details of the actual implementation.

    Understandably, this blog post is focused on ADC research. I am curious if there are similar trends in other fields.

  5. Yes, that would be interesting to know. If anyone has a reference/URL to a similar comparison for another scientific field, be sure to post it here.

  6. Michiel: Could it be that, in the early years, the industry saw the potential to make profit by selling stuff, but for some reason (prototyping cost/availability, other priorities) academic efforts weren’t ironing out the wrinkles fast enough, and therefore the companies just had to make it happen themselves in order to not miss out on the emerging market for monolithic ADCs? Due to novelty, every publication became a tool for positioning the company technically (besides acting as a data sheet or product brief), while nowadays the relative position of each company is fairly well established, and due to the overall noise level the business value of a scientific paper is, as you say, difficult to assess?

    I didn’t get into ADCs until 1991/92, so it would be very interesting if any of the pioneers from the 70’s and 80’s would want to share their views on what really happened. Particularly why (seemingly) the industry initially took the lead over academia.

  7. It is an interesting discussion. My point of view is that it is difficult to tell from the amount of publications.
    Most of the IC companies involving in mixed-signal circuit design work on data converters. So there will be many.., but those leading companies are only interested in ISSCC or VLSI which have a good impact and do not need to disclose too much information (2 pages paper only). And of course they will not tell others their good ideals in a conference before they patent it or make it in silicon.
    While for universities, publication in the first priority.


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