The semiconductor industry has a give-and-take relationship with the rest of the technological world. Even as semiconductor manufacturers affect change within the industry, they look to directions taken by Big Tech. Here’s how semiconductor designers bring about change — as well as how the industry itself must adapt in response to outside pressures and trends.
1. The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the most essential frontiers in computing. Movers and shakers in the semiconductor industry used to be able to rely on constant smartphone growth to turn a profit. Now that these devices have reached a saturation point, the IoT is the next big opportunity for semiconductor manufacturers to re-seize momentum.
Distributed computing is the order of the day now. To thrive, semiconductor companies will have to refocus their efforts on the Internet of Things and not just on chips for familiar handset hardware. These devices include sensors, memory modules, microcontrollers, medical electronics, smart home and factory assets and other integrated technologies.
2. Automation and Predictive Diagnostics
Semiconductor companies have a significant role to play in bringing automated technologies to a broader audience. Yet they also benefit from the availability of smart manufacturing technologies and automation. Fabrication equipment today is more advanced than ever, automatically monitoring operating temperatures and voltage, plus machine angle, speed and position. Plus, predictive maintenance helps find equipment faults before they result in a compromised product.
Some of this pressure comes from ever-higher standards for electronic components in newer verticals like smart cars, worn medical devices, military electronics and more. Automation provides an opportunity to put manufacturing data to work, including analyzing data from wafer sorting, burn-in tests and other manufacturing processes.
Combining and studying data in this way, across a whole production plant, may yield tremendous savings. One manufacturer used automation and big data systems to realize $68 million in savings. This monetary boost came from the ability to track wasteful processes, spot problems more quickly — like flux loss and loose dies — and isolate and correct testing issues.
3. Artificial Intelligence
AI will soon be everywhere — but we need new types of hardware to facilitate this considerable computational power, as well as the means to store and transmit significant quantities of data between devices. The downturn in smartphone profits for semiconductor manufacturers mentioned earlier has been brutal — a 12.85% drop in profitability in 2019 alone.
Artificial intelligence is the opportunity the semiconductor industry has been waiting for to reverse this decline. Companies in this space have a chance to design novel products that break through limitations in current hardware, including networking, storage, memory and computational power.
As an example, AI hardware requires specialized memory modules that provide 4.5 times the bandwidth as familiar memory technologies. When experts extrapolated the financial opportunity from this, they found that AI-related semiconductor technologies could grow five times faster than non-AI ones, reaching $67 billion in annual revenue by 2025.
4. New Technologies and Standards for Testing
New applications for semiconductors bring new technologies and standards for testing the product as well as maintaining the manufacturing environment.
One of the newest standards impacting the semiconductor industry is SEMI E176-1017. This regulation provides more robust methodologies for testing for and mitigating electromagnetic interference (EMI) in semiconductor production areas. It is facility-wide, rather than a standard for individual pieces of production equipment.
Manufacturers, engineers and technicians that don’t take changes to existing standards seriously, including those concerning emission problems, run the risk of errors in the production process — including process variations and damage to sensitive instruments, as well as data corruption.
Standards aren’t the only thing impacting modern production environments. As semiconductors find new uses in electronic devices, including nanotechnology, manufacturers need new technologies for monitoring semiconductor processes and cleaning semiconductor chambers. The stakes for consistently high quality have never been higher.
Together, optical emission spectroscopy (OES) and machine learning provide a better way to monitor fabrication processes. Previously, manufacturers relied on trial-and-error to determine etching times, cleaning processes and deposition rates. OES improves and replaces monochromators, too, which analyze a single wavelength at a time and are susceptible to optical interference. As a result, manufacturers can realize higher yields and more consistent quality.
5. New Semiconductor Materials
Common silicon is giving ground to newer and more capable materials for semiconductor fabrication, including silicon carbide (SiC). Electronic devices utilizing common silicon may not demonstrate the thermal conductivity or frequency-switching capabilities that clients require for their products. This material also experiences higher power loss in electrical components.
Instead, silicon carbide semiconductors can handle voltages around 10 times higher than what common silicon can withstand. In addition, thanks to improved thermal conductivity, SiC is better able to meet the requirements for rugged or high-temperature conditions — like those required in military and remote sensor systems as well as wind turbines and solar power inverters.
Even familiar electric motors benefit from SiC as a semiconductor material. Engines of this type show 80% lower power loss, meaning designers can produce powerful products with smaller batteries and, consequently, smaller footprints.
The Semiconductor Industry — A Sector in Transition
The last few years haven’t been kind to semiconductor manufacturers who staked their whole fortune on smartphones. Each of these trends shows a productive and lucrative way forward, either by revolutionizing how semiconductors are made or by opening up opportunities for makers to stake their claim in emerging markets.