The semiconductor industry is the backbone of all modern-era digital devices as well as future technologies. It has shown multi-fold growth in the past decade in terms of revenue generation and is set to continue its robust evolution well into the next one.
The higher demand and ever-growing uptake for artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), quantum computing, 5G, among other emerging technology segments, combined with the rising demands of the connected world for higher computational speed and efficiency, low-power devices, and intelligent chipsets have been impacting the dynamics of the semiconductor industry in a major way. Here is a detailed low-down of the key trends arising from these growth drivers.
Exploration of alternatives to silicon
With the scope for further shrinking silicon-based substrates almost negligible, current R&D activities across the global semiconductor industry are highly focused on identifying alternative materials for semiconductor manufacturing. The market for new and emerging semiconductor substrates are expected to exceed the USD 400 million mark by 2024, growing at a rate of 24% between 2018 and 2024.
Some of the emerging substrates being considered are Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) for radio frequency (RF) and photonics applications, Silicon Carbide (SiC) for power and RF applications, Gallium Nitride (GaN)-on-sapphire for LEDs, and Silicon-on-insulator (SOI) for RF and contact image sensors (CIS). Amongst the emerging substrates, GaN and SiC have shown remarkable wide-bandgap (WBG) characteristics, which may be useful in replacing traditionally-used silicon. Furthermore, the selection of suitable substrates will enable the assessment of WBG- one of the key semiconductor characteristics that facilitates higher switching speeds in transistors.
Boosting semiconductor integration with advanced packaging solutions
A critical growth opportunity lies in the adoption of new chip technologies and its packaging methodology across a diverse range of applications. As electronics such as mobile devices and wearables continue to shrink in size, and technologies such as Internet of Medical Things, medical robots, and wearable medical tech emerge, advanced packaging technologies are gaining increased importance in the global supply chain. Advanced packaging will ultimately offer customization opportunities for manufacturers and buyers at a lower cost.
Some of the advanced packaging technologies include fan-out wafer-level packaging, multi-row QFNs (quad-flats no-lead), interconnection technologies, through-silicon vias (TSV), 2.5D and 3D Integration, stacked packages, and system-in-package. Smaller packaging solutions will also drive the innovation in size reduction of various devices – increasing the processing power while keeping energy consumption minimal.
The use of laser technologies for better precision
There has been a steady rise in the adoption of laser technologies in semiconductor manufacturing over the past few years. While the drivers for the use of laser methods vary, they are commonly used in semiconductor and PCB processing applications, allowing for an optimized, hassle-free production of semiconductors.
Dicing, drilling, patterning, debonding, annealing, inspection, and metrology are some of the broader application areas for laser technologies in semiconductor manufacturing. The major factors powering laser’s contribution to the growth of the global semiconductor market include the need for die size reduction, increased yield, better quality, and precision. This seamless application of a pre-existing technology from one sector to another has refined the process, and further innovations in the field will push ahead this trend in the future.
Nano-imprint lithography, an efficient alternative to EUV
Semiconductor lithography is one of the key contributors in the evolution of semiconductors. Nano-Imprint Lithography (NIL) is the new frontier in this field, revived by the latest advancements in photonics, biochips and front-end memory applications.
Canon’s implementation of next-generation NIL for Toshiba has shown to achieve comparable technical performance in 3D NAND memory chips.
With the capacity to produce semiconductors of higher resolution and greater uniformity compared with those produced by photolithography equipment, NIL is paving the way for cutting-edge lithography procedures in a simplified format. ASML Holding is a key player in the semiconductor lithography market, whose next-generation extreme ultra-violet lithography (EUV) system sales represented 25% of the overall revenues for the company in 2018. Canon’s next-generation NIL system has the potential to significantly impact the sales of ASML’s EUV systems. Other factors driving optical photonic elements are augmented reality (AR), 3D sensing, and data communication applications. A smaller division of Molecular Imprint – an imprint equipment startup – was acquired by Magic Leap to explore NIL capabilities and leverage the technology in its AR portfolio. Some of the other key entities involved in NIL include Obducat, Nanonex, EV Group, GuangDuo Nano, and SUSS MicroTec.
Bringing AI chips to the edge
Machine learning (ML) tasks are often processed at remote data centres over the internet rather than the user device itself due to the various challenges associated with computing power and storage shortages. AI chips present an opportunity to overcome these limitations by offering localized processing of ML tasks while reducing the power and latency required for transmitting huge datasets from edge devices to the cloud. This will result in smarter gadgets and machinery that do not have to depend on internet connectivity for functioning. With an estimated sale of 750 million AI chips in 2020, the industry is touted to rake in USD $2.6 billion, with no signs of slowing down in the near future. With the rise of IoT, and the need for greater efficiency, AI chips are bound to find their way into every electronic gadget around us.
Surge in automotive semiconductors
Semiconductor firms are diversifying their automotive portfolio to meet the demand of chipsets, modems, memories, and other hardware solutions for telematics solutions, including connected cars, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, in-vehicle infotainment, cloud connectivity, digital cockpits, among others. Many have acquired automotive solution providers to keep up with the rapid technology changes in the automotive market. It is anticipated that in 2020, tech establishments such as Intel and NXP Semiconductors will launch new automotive solutions owing to their major investments in Mobileye and CogniVue, respectively.
Advanced AI technologies being the backbone of autonomous vehicles, have pushed the development of various semiconductor components to the next level. Advanced automation in a vehicle implies the inclusion of additional semiconductor components such as sensors for imaging and ranging. Technologies such as vision-based processing, neuromorphic chipsets, and hardware-level security are redefining the architecture for next-generation vehicle experiences, and semiconductors play a vital role in enabling them.
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