It may be tempting to view the strong demand for semiconductors as just one more up-cycle in our traditionally cyclical industry, but what’s really driving things right now is the opening of entirely new horizons, made possible by the increased capabilities of today’s chips.
Chip demand is no longer only being driven by the needs of computer and smartphone manufacturers. Now, a mushrooming number of new and varied applications within many different industries is both creating demand and pushing chip technology in new directions. Therefore, while the traditional goal of developing faster, denser semiconductors remains very important, it is no longer the only path forward.
We see the following sectors as major drivers of semiconductor demand going forward, in addition to traditional computing and smartphone applications: sophisticated Internet of Things (IoT) applications; 5G and wireless networking; automotive; and artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML).
In the IoT area, a high degree of sensing, processing and communications capability is increasingly being embedded into physical objects to bring “intelligence” – powerful data analysis and processing capabilities – to their operation. The goals are to improve performance, efficiency and cost, and to develop entirely new ways of solving problems.
For 5G and wireless networking, bandwidth requirements are becoming incredibly stringent so as to create more capable, reliable and secure networks. For example, while achieving just 50 milliseconds of latency in networking equipment was an impressive technical achievement not that long ago, it now seems almost quaint because projected requirements call for latency of 1ms or less for many networking applications.
Automotive electronics is another fast-growing area. The number of electronic devices in a car has skyrocketed from the introduction of the humble remote-entry key fob in the early 1980s. There is a growing need for advanced semiconductor processes, many of which combine RF and power-handling capabilities, to address widely varied automotive applications such as driver assistance, safety and infotainment systems.
AI and machine learning systems, meanwhile, generate vast amounts of data that can be exploited to achieve greater productivity, efficiency, quality and cost-effectiveness with less human intervention.
GF Positioned for Growth
Many of these new applications require chips that offer a good balance of performance, power consumption, flexibility and cost, and if that isn’t the perfect way to describe GF’s 22FDX® technology then I don’t know what is. GF’s 22FDX technology is a major advantage for customers in these high-growth sectors. It delivers powerful performance plus high energy-efficiency at a cost comparable to 28nm planar technologies, but at a 20 percent smaller die size and with 10 percent fewer masks than 28nm, and with about half as many immersion lithography layers required.
Moreover, software-controlled transistor body-biasing gives customers the ability to dynamically switch back and forth between high-performance and low-power operation. This enables them, for example, to optimize sleep and active operating modes. FDX™ technology also allows customers to easily integrate digital, analog, and RF functions onto a single chip for intelligent, fully integrated system solutions.
Already, we have more than 20 customer design wins for a wide-ranging set of 22FDX applications including narrow-band Internet of Things (IoT) systems, blockchain development and bitcoin mining, geolocation, millimeter-wave automotive radar and AI/ML, among others.
These offerings are complementary to our ultra-high-performance FinFET technologies which follow the path of Moore’s Law, enabling customers such as AMD and IBM to offer blazingly fast graphics processing and powerful mainframe servers.
Thus, GF’s dual-technology FDX and FinFET roadmaps, augmented by a range of differentiated technologies already commercialized or in various stages of development, are giving customers unparalleled opportunities to pursue these high-growth areas.
For example, GF’s roadmap for advanced packaging solutions is another key advantage for customers in these markets. We are committed to a leadership position with our portfolio of packaging technologies because the needs for higher bandwidth, more storage and faster speeds mean that advanced packaging solutions must be used to maximize product performance and function. Our ASIC offerings are designed to leverage advanced packaging options which include single- and multi-chip modules and 2.5/3D solutions for seamless integration at the module level.
Importance of the Human Factor
As impressive as these technological achievements are, perhaps GF’s most important achievement is how we are able to bring people and teams together from all backgrounds to develop these solutions and help our customers take advantage of the opportunities before them.
We started out with a strong, diverse worldwide R&D team and augmented it with additional strong technical and managerial talent from the IBM Semiconductor acquisition in 2015. This acquisition brought to GF some 500 people who work on leading-edge technology, leadership RF technologies for wireless communications, ASIC design capabilities which include leadership high-speed SerDes, advanced packaging solutions, and much more.
We nurture our talent carefully, because the design and fabrication of semiconductors requires many complementary skills and the ability to forge cohesive teams is key. To that end we leverage many types of cross-site partnerships to disseminate shared learning. One example is our guest lecture series, where we invite the world’s top people to GF to give talks on important and timely topics. We record these sessions and broadcast them to all of our sites so that employees the world over can have the opportunity to learn.
Learning also takes place in the context of collaborations with industry research groups to amplify our internal efforts. Our technical people are heavily involved in developing future technologies with groups such as the IBM Research Alliance at SUNY Polytechnic in Albany, imec, Leti and the SRC.
Traditional views of the future of chip technology have been up-ended as the use of semiconductors spreads into multiple new and growing areas. While it certainly remains critical to follow the path of Moore’s Law, that is now only one way forward.
GF’s technologies put us in a very favorable position to respond to evolving user needs, and so 2018 should be a very interesting year indeed.