VLSI Design / Digital Systems Design Pathway
The Very Large-Scale Integrated (VLSI) Design / Digital Systems Design pathway is intended for students interested in developing high-performance semiconductor chips, including microprocessors, for networking, machine learning, memory systems and other applications used frequently by large companies such as Intel, Qualcomm, Apple, IBM, AMD, Micron and others. VLSI designers combine an interest in electronics, computing and digital logic. Digital systems design couples the hardware and software focus of computing with the physical realities of VLSI chip design.
This pathway is intended for students who are interested in careers at the boundary of hardware and software that require an understanding of computation ranging from software to physical implementation. The area emphasizes the technology of designing digital microelectronic circuits, which can be implemented as a single integrated circuit with millions of transistors. Example VLSI design applications include computer memory, logic gates, digital ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) and various programmable gate array systems. The VLSI Design / Digital Systems Design pathway provides students with the strong foundation needed to leverage increasingly evolving technological advances across the computing stack — from semiconductors to algorithms — into real-world hardware engines that drive advances in science, engineering, medicine, sustainability and our quality of life.
This pathway is a good fit for students who are interested in:
- Understanding and building sophisticated systems ranging from low-power cellphone technology to distributed computing systems
- Developing ‘design thinking,’ and becoming equipped with the skills needed to manage the scale and complexity of modern computing and communication systems
- Designing at an abstraction level closer to technology
- Designing circuits that are suited to emerging device and interconnect semiconductor technologies
Do I need a graduate degree specializing in this area to be marketable to industry?
No. While a student with a bachelor’s degree can easily find employment, a master’s degree opens up a noticeably wider range of positions in this area. A doctoral degree is generally required for research or teaching.
Does this pathway touch on global impact, equity and/or quality of life?
Yes. Advances in communication, sensing, and computing over the last few decades, manifesting as the Internet of Things (IoT), data centers, or 6G, for example, are all built upon systems engineered by VLSI designers. In doing so, the area has made a significant contribution to transforming the fields of science and medicine, enhanced human productivity, and improved quality and convenience of life. Affordable, low-power smartphones designed by VLSI engineers, for instance, continue to play a transformational role in developing countries, allowing low-resource sections of the world to participate in the global supply chain and provide improved access to banking, education and medical services.
Areas of Impact
Air and Space
From the on-board electronics that guide, control and power the Hubble Space telescope and the Mars rover to Cubesats, VLSI / digital systems engineers are building the sophisticated electronics that enable these sorts of applications.
Computing Data and Digital Technologies
VLSI / digital systems engineers are focused on the hardware and software underpinning of computational systems and in harnessing current and future digital technologies.
Environmental Sustainability and Energy
There is an evolving need for developing new sensing systems that can better monitor energy in homes and buildings, as well as better monitor the environment (wildfires, soil, air quality) so appropriate action can be taken on information these sensors deliver.
Health and Medicine
As health and medicine evolve to use ever greater amounts of electronics, VLSI / digital systems engineers help to create these diagnostic and treatment systems. From a smartphone that can automatically detect disease to the electronics that capture data and recreate imaging from CT and PET scanners, this technology relies heavily on computing systems.
Infrastructure, Transportation, and Society
As the supply-chain crunch in semiconductors has shown, modern automobiles are reliant on a large number of digital chips and embedded systems to function. As we move toward self-driving automobiles, this will increasingly be the case. VLSI / digital systems engineers bring together the hardware and software that underpins this technology.
Related Career Paths
Students applying their knowledge and skills in VLSI design / digital systems design contribute to several key enabling technologies in the real world:
- Microprocessor designs, used in a range of applications from ultra-low power sensors, cellphones and data centers (Intel, AMD, Apple, ARM)
- Machine learning, signal processing, cryptography, and accelerators in integrated circuits used in a range of different applications from mobile communication, to autonomous vehicles to neural interfaces (Qualcomm, Tesla, Medtronic)
- Graphics processors (NVIDIA, AMD, ARM)
Students get jobs in design and verification in the growing and increasingly critical semiconductor industry. Students in this pathway continue to be sought after by companies that include Intel, Apple, AMD, Micron, NVidia, Qualcomm, Meta and Tenstorrent.
VLSI Design Courses
These courses are suggested for those following the VLSI Design / Digital Systems Design pathway but are not required to complete the BSECE degree program:
EE 331 — Devices and Circuits
How can knowledge about electrical engineering fundamentals be combined with digital logic to build the sorts of digital circuits that lie at the heart of processors today? This course begins with a close examination of a simple CMOS inverter design and uses it to introduce students to the world of digital circuit design.
EE 371 — Design of Digital Circuits and Systems
This course provides a theoretical background and practical experience with tools and techniques for modeling complex digital systems, using the Verilog hardware description language. Students will learn how to maintain signal integrity, manage power consumption and ensure robust intra- and inter-system communication.
EE 469 — Computer Architecture
How does the machine code produced by a compiler translate into computation by a processor? How can we improve the performance of a processor, and what are the trade-offs that must be made? These questions and many more are answered by this course, as students receive an initial exposure to computer architecture and design their own processor in Verilog Hardware Design Language, an industry standard for hardware description.
EE 476 — Introduction to Very Large-Scale Integrated Design (Custom VLSI Design)
Modularity, scalability and abstraction are cornerstones of being able to translate a knowledge of digital circuits gained in EE 331 into substantially more complex VLSI sub-systems (such as an arithmetic logic unit). Engineering design is a practitioner’s art. In this class, students learn the fundamentals of digital VLSI design and solidify their knowledge by taking part in a challenging quarter-long series of design assignments, which culminate in a high-quality custom design of a computational module. VLSI-1 is sponsored and supported by industry members such as Micron because of the relevance of the knowledge and skills imparted in this course.
EE 477 — VLSI II (Automated VLSI Design)
The vast portion of modern integrated circuits today are constructed using synthesis, auto-place and route (SAPR) methodologies. These methodologies allow a designer to describe their design using a hardware design language such as System Verilog and rely on electronic design automation to produce digital circuits that implement the desired function. Managing the massive scale achievable by such designs requires understanding both system-building principles and higher-level concepts in digital design, as well as the skills for effective use of industry-standard design tools to produce these designs. The relevance of the content and skills taught in this class have led to its support by Intel.
EE 478 — Capstone Integrated Digital Design Projects
Students work in groups of three to implement design projects which have, in the past, included the design of an ultra-low-power mixed-signal sensor chip containing data-converters, integrated power electronics for energy-efficient computing, and higher-performance microprocessor implementations. Students will use a variety of industry standard tools to implement and validate their designs.
EE 497 (winter quarter) and EE 498 (spring quarter) — Engineering Entrepreneurial Capstone (ENGINE)
The Engineering Entrepreneurial Capstone program (ENGINE) is the culmination of a student’s electrical and computer engineering education at UW ECE. The program provides a unique opportunity for students to develop skills in collaborative systems engineering, project management, and most importantly, working in teams on real-world problems from industry-sponsored projects. The program is overseen by UW ECE faculty and students are guided by practicing engineers. The course culminates in a showcase of student projects, which is attended by industry sponsors and held at the end of spring quarter every year.
Students studying VLSI Design / Digital Systems Design consider the following pathways:
Enriching Your Path
VLSI / digital systems designers benefit from a strong foundation in analog circuits. The following courses are recommended:
- EE 332 — Circuits 3
- EE 371 — Digital Logic
- EE 470 — Computer Architecture II
- EE 473 — Linear ICs