Foreign Companies, Chinese Universities: a Win-Win

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHANGHAI — Relationships are paramount in Chinese culture, and in business as well as education the phrase “win-win” is often heard here.

And China is doing its best to get up to speed with the rest of the globe when it comes to technology. And the chip industry is excited about the burgeoning domestic market here.

So it is no surprise that foreign companies, including U.S. chipmakers and test and measurement suppliers, as well as European chipmakers, are partnering with universities here and throughout China as often as they are partnering with their Chinese business counterparts. Today Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) formally signed agreements with and unveiled engineering labs sponsored in part by Altera, STMicroelectronics, National Instruments (NI) and Embest Info &Tech, a Chinese company.

SJTU, first founded in 1896, is one of the oldest universities in the country, and considered one of China’s the premier schools for electrical engineering and electronics.

The aforementioned tech companies supplied state-of-the-art software and hardware for newly christened labs here in the School of Electronic Information and Electrical Engineering at SJTU. The companies, the students and professors agreed that it is a coveted win-win situation for all involved.

In the past, professors and instructors in the EE program at the school always relied on traditional engineering methods and testing techniques in their classes. With high-tech companies donating advanced technology, it gives instructors a chance to expose students to different methods, technologies and equipment, explained Shu Guo Hua, dean of the engineering labs at the school.

For example, with NI providing data acquisition boards as well as its flagship software LabVIEW, it gives professors and students alike exposure to virtual instrumentation, a relatively new concept for the Chinese electronics engineer, Shu said.

Furthermore, it gives the students a chance to work with equipment and practice applications that they will encounter in their professional lives once they leave SJTU, noted Professor Zhang Zhi Gang. It may even help bridge the gap between laboratory research and commercial applications, a problem that has plagued the country in the past and something it still grapples with today as it pursues economic reform.

“For a lot of young, smart students in China, this is a chance to know what a real company in the industry is doing,” Zhang said. “The advanced equipment also gives them a chance to realize their own ideas and projects, developing original intellectual property. “They can realize their imaginations on a state-of-the-art kit,” he added.

“This is great experience for when we graduate from here,” agreed Zheng Yexiu, an engineering student here. He plans to attend graduate school in the U.S. before returning to China, and he feels the new engineering labs at SJTU will give him a leg up in his graduate school applications.

Getting Into the Heads of Future Engineers

San Jose-based Altera Corp., through a Taiwanese partner, Terasic Technologies, supplied Cyclone II FPGAs and Nios II embedded processors for the development kits used in one lab here. Terasic in turn built and configured the kit’s board so that it could be used to expose students to multimedia technology, such as might be found in a set-top box or DVD player, explained CEO Sean Peng.

“In the past students didn’t have very good access to this type of technology,” Peng said. “Our goal is to give the students tools so that when they graduate, they know what to do.”

Similarly, France’s STMicroelectronics supplied Arm-based 32-bit STR7 MCUs, built into a development board kit by Shenzen, China-based company Embest, for yet another development lab at SJTU’s engineering school.

For the foreign companies involved, the motivations for participating in the programs and the benefits reaped, both tangible and intangible, are obvious.

As the university’s Shu observed, virtual instrumentation, which NI pioneered with its engineering software, is just in the beginning phase of adoption here in China. “We like to see more and more students familiar with the technology,” said Eric Xiang, an NI sales manager for Eastern China.

By cooperating in these joint programs, companies like NI, Altera and STMicro not only help encourage the development of qualified engineers – future prospective employees, even – but perhaps more directly, they see those engineers graduate with intimate knowledge of their respective companies’ methodologies, hardware and software.

Certainly a good idea; the students today at universities like SJTU will be tomorrow’s engineers and executives tasked with helping to meet China’s exploding demand for electronics. NI, which pursues a number of educational programs in the United States and elsewhere, is particularly active in China, said Xiang – it has similar program at Tsingua University in Beijing.

For programmable logic maker Altera, by cooperating with SJTU it is encouraging future system designers that will be familiar with its silicon. “I think this gives you an opportunity … to do complex system design,” Robert Blake, VP of product planning, said of the Altera-based development kits now at SJTU. It’s particularly important, because the functions of DSPs, MCUs and the like are converging at the system level, he suggested.

Arnaud Julienne, STMicro’s senior manager for its MCU segment in the Asia/Pacific region, offered similar logic for his company’s participation. While China is using primarily 8-bit MCUs in its domestic hardware right now, 32-bit chips, once the realm of high-end applications, are coming down in price, and a shift to 32-bit is coming, he said.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaWhile 8-bit won’t go away by any means, many cost-sensitive applications that were once the exclusive province of 8-bit technology will soon be able to use cost-effective 32-bit chips, he said. Certainly many 16-bit applications will see a conversion to 32-bit MCUs, he added.

That’s why STMicro donated the use of the STR7 in the lab development kits. It will be introducing tomorrow’s engineers to 32-bit technology while still in school. The program with SJTU is the first such program for STMicro in China, but not the last. “We’ll be doing more,” Julienne added.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

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