Semiconductors On the Cusp of a Golden Era

By: Gary Dagastine

Since the invention of the transistor, breathtaking advances in semiconductor technology have driven the evolution of computing and communications along a path from centralized mainframes and minicomputers, to networked PCs, to sophisticated mobile devices that can connect to networks at any time from anywhere.

Yet as impressive as these achievements have been, they represent only the beginning of the contributions semiconductors will make to society. Their real impact is yet to come because while there are already billions of internet-connected devices in the world, a much greater number will be connected globally in the next few years for applications such as autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things (IoT) and many others.

They will require an extensive infrastructure to connect, transmit, process, act upon and store all of the resulting data. Building an infrastructure that can enable such “connected intelligence” is a huge ongoing task that will require so many semiconductors relying on so many technologies, that it’s fair to say a golden era is dawning for the industry.

That was the perspective given recently by GLOBALFOUNDRIES CEO Sanjay Jha and Sr. Vice President and General Manager of Fab 8 Tom Caulfield, in keynote talks at the Mobile World Congress Shanghai and SEMICON West trade shows, respectively.

Their talks were focused on describing this new era of connected intelligence, how it is changing the requirements and conditions for success in the foundry segment, and how GF is making it possible.

Jha spoke about how the explosion of data is leading to a  connected intelligence inter-relationship among data centers, networks and client devices (i.e., smartphones, IoT devices, etc.). He described how GF is in a leadership position to enable it, both with regard to GF’s suite of leading-edge technologies and in terms of the company’s business strategies, such as the building of a new 300mm fab in Chengdu, China for 22FDX®-based products.

“The last 10 years in this industry have probably been the most transformative in our lives,” he said. “One example is that our phones have become an extension of our minds. Another, from a social perspective, is that Facebook now has almost 2 billion monthly users. Considering that China has about 1.4 billion people, the Facebook community is now larger than any other.”

At MWC Shanghai, CEO Sanjay Jha was a keynote speaker and part of a panel speaking on the topic of “Industry & The Human Element”

“I believe the next 10 years is going to be a golden era for the foundry business,” he said. “Industry estimates suggest that by 2025 we will be using 163 zettabytes of data (one zettabyte = 250 billion DVDs). We are collecting, transporting and analyzing all of this information – both at the edge with client devices for real-time decision-making and in the data center for longer-term insight gathering. Semiconductors are the enabling technology.”

Jha believes this transformation is changing the conditions for success in the semiconductor industry – both in terms of technologies and customer engagement models.

Regarding technologies, he described how GF’s dual roadmap of FDX™ technology for battery-powered devices and FinFET technology for high-performance processing in data centers and high-end computing devices is unique, and allows the company to match the right technology with the right application.

When coupled with the company’s legacy of leadership in RF, its new silicon photonics technologies for connectivity, and differentiated ASIC and analog/power technologies, GF is in a unique position to drive progress across the full breadth of new applications in the years ahead.

Regarding engagement models, Jha used China as an example, saying that, “The country is moving from a ‘Made in China’ stage of industry to an ‘Innovated in China’ position, and our Chengdu fab is a strategic, long-term joint venture partnership with the Chengdu government that is conceived in that light. It will be central to our IoT and 5G technologies, and when complete it will be the largest fab in China, with a building half a kilometer long.” Click here to view Sanjay Jha’s presentation.

At SEMICON West, Caulfield said that ever since Gordon Moore’s famous observations known as Moore’s Law were made some 50 years ago, the industry has been putting the pieces into place for what comes next, in effect. “We’ve made products that are smart, and that’s great, but now we’re going to take ‘smart’ and do something special with it. We are moving beyond an internet of smart things, to a framework of ‘connected intelligence’ whose operation and capabilities in many ways mimic the way the mind works.”

Tom Caulfield, SVP & GM of Fab 8, was a keynote speaker and a part of the opening ceremony for SEMICON West 2017

Caulfield noted that the engine powering this move is semiconductor innovation but that in order to keep achieving the technological progress predicted by Moore’s Law, the industry must operate differently because things have become so complex and inter-twined. Scaling is still critical, but scaling alone is no longer an effective strategy.

“After 50 years the game is still ahead of us. We must redefine innovation, collaborate differently and shift engagement behaviors in order to drive needed innovation in data analysis, bandwidth, storage density and power management,” he said. He pointed to GF’s dual-technology roadmap as an example of how innovation is being redefined, with FinFETs representing one path forward for high-performance computing and FDX representing another path forward for wireless, battery-powered devices.

With regard to collaborating differently, Caulfield noted that as the world has developed and the industry has grown and become more complex, old ways of doing business are no longer adequate. He said that a strategy of collaboration today needs to be built on three elements: strategic partnerships with key suppliers; “coopetition” with industry rivals, meaning to cooperate with them in some areas and compete with them in others; and public-private partnerships.

He used the Albany Nanotech research facility as an example of the benefits of coopetition, saying, ”For the industry, it offsets our collective expense to develop technology at the leading edge and lets us build scale in key technologies on a virtual basis.”

With regard to engagement behaviors, he said, “The industry is now so complex that we’ve reached the point where when you look at a project team it’s difficult to know who is the vendor and who is the customer.  Sure, everyone has a boss, but they are really dedicated to the project.”

That’s just one example of how engagement behavior needs to evolve, Caulfield said. “Sharing ideas across global teams, working in an interdisciplinary fashion and encouraging a diversity of ideas are absolutely vital to technical innovation in today’s world,” he said. Click here to view Tom Caulfield’s presentation.

About Author

Gary Dagastine

Gary Dagastine

Gary Dagastine is a writer who has covered the semiconductor industry for EE Times, Electronics Weekly and many specialized media outlets. He is a contributing editor at Nanochip Fab Solutions magazine and also is the Director of Media Relations for the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM), the world’s most influential technology conference for semiconductors. He started in the industry at General Electric Co. where he provided communications support to GE’s power, analog and custom IC businesses. Gary is a graduate of Union College in Schenectady, New York,