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The Future of Semiconductor Technology

Chip Industry Choke Points_053022A
[Chip Industry Choke Points, Bloomberg]

Semiconductors are the Brains of Modern Electronics.

- Overview

In the past few decades, growth of the global semiconductor industry has been driven largely by the demand for cutting-edge electronic devices such as desktops, laptops and wireless communication products, and by the rise of cloud-based computing. Growth will continue with new application drivers for the high-performance compute market segment.

Semiconductors, otherwise known as “chips,” are an ­­essential component at the heart of economic growth, security, and technological innovation. Smaller than the size of a postage stamp, thinner than a human hair, and made of nearly 40 billion components, the impact that semiconductors are having on world development exceeds that of the Industrial Revolution. 

From smartphones, PCs, pacemakers to the internet, electronic vehicles, aircrafts, and hypersonic weaponry, semiconductors are ubiquitous in electrical devices and the digitization of goods and services such as global e-commerce. And demand is skyrocketing, with the industry facing numerous challenges and opportunities as emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, Internet of Things (IoT), and advanced wireless communications, notably 5G, all requiring cutting-edge semiconductor-enabled devices.


- The Future of the Semiconductor Industry

In addition to the upstream IC design, the midstream foundry, the DRAM industry, and the downstream packaging and testing, photomask, equipment and other industries, semiconductors have a huge group, and the application of semiconductors has also expanded to the electronic information industry, automotive electronics, Aerospace, medical, precision machinery and other industries.

While the future of the semiconductor industry looks bright, no one knows with certainty where it’s headed. The direction it moves in depends on many factors, which include the following:

  • the experimentation with new semiconductor materials
  • the increase in the price of rare earth metals
  • the accelerated industrial adoption of new technologies in artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and related fields

These factors and others will inevitably impact sales, create opportunities, and present fresh challenges. 


- The Trends of the Semiconductor Industry

The dependency between the global economy and technology is greater today than it’s ever been, and this is creating sustained demand for semiconductors. It is also broadening the growth drivers for the semiconductor industry. While consumer devices led electronics demand over the past decade, commercial investments in IoT, Big Data, AI and 5G infrastructure are poised to lead the next decade and reshape every industry on the planet, from pharmaceuticals and healthcare to agriculture, energy and transportation. 

Among all of the emerging technology megatrends, AI in particular has major implications for the electronics and semiconductor ecosystem. First, we’re moving from an application-centric world to a data-first model where almost all data will be generated and consumed by machines. This means that the industry’s growth will no longer be limited by the ability of humans to create or consume data.

A new computing approach is needed to make sense of the massive volumes of available data. We’ll enhance productivity using faster, workload-specific hardware built from customized, and even entirely new, types of silicon. Training neural networks for AI computing is incredibly energy intensive, which places a huge imperative on the industry to drive performance-per-watt improvements.

The rise of AI and the data economy are fueling a new era of growth for chipmakers and the semiconductor equipment industry.


- Moore's Law and Semiconductor Innovation

In recent decades, scientists have made great strides in progressing semiconductor innovation. Researchers have consistently kept pace with Moore’s Law, which states that the number of circuits on a microchip doubles every two years. They have accomplished this by experimenting with variations of semiconductor materials. 

For example, scientists have seen potential in revisiting germanium (Ge) for use in transistor technology. Electrons move four times faster in germanium than in silicon, providing a great opportunity to improve speed. 

Additionally, manufacturers have experimented with the following semiconductor materials:

  • Tin oxide
  • High-power gallium nitride
  • Antimonide-based and bismuthide-based materials
  • Graphene
  • Pyrite 


- Semiconductor Types

To understand the changing nature of semiconductor manufacturing, it is necessary to understand how available semiconductor materials and their composition affect electronic devices.

There are many different types of semiconductor materials. These different types of semiconductor have slightly different properties and lend themselves to different applications in various forms of semiconductor devices. 

Some may be applicable for standard signal applications, others for high frequency amplifiers, while other types may be applicable for power applications and harsh environments or others for light emitting applications. All these different applications tend to utilize different types of semiconductor materials.

The most commonly used semiconductor materials are silicon, germanium and gallium arsenide. Among these three materials, germanium was one of the earliest semiconductor materials used. 

Although germanium was an important step in the development of semiconductor materials, it has been largely abandoned in favor of silicon, the current king of semiconductor materials. 

Gallium arsenide is the second most commonly used semiconductor today. Unlike silicon and germanium, gallium arsenide is a compound made of gallium, not an element.


- Semiconductors Groups

There are two basic groups or classifications that can be used to define the different semiconductor types:

  • Intrinsic materials:   An intrinsic type of semiconductor material made to be very pure chemically. As a result it possesses a very low conductivity level having very few number of charge carriers, namely holes and electrons, which it possesses in equal quantities.
  • Extrinsic materials:   Extrinisc types of semiconductor are those where a small amount of impurity has been added to the basic intrinsic material. This 'doping' uses an element from a different periodic table group and in this way it will either have more or less electrons in the valence band than the semiconductor itself. This creates either an excess or shortage of electrons. In this way two types of semiconductor are available: Electrons are negatively charged carriers.
  • N-type: An N-type semiconductor material has an excess of electrons. In this way, free electrons are available within the lattices and their overall movement in one direction under the influence of a potential difference results in an electric current flow. This in an N-type semiconductor, the charge carriers are electrons.
  • P-type: In a P-type semiconductor material there is a shortage of electrons, i.e. there are 'holes' in the crystal lattice. Electrons may move from one empty position to another and in this case it can be considered that the holes are moving. This can happen under the influence of a potential difference and the holes can be seen to flow in one direction resulting in an electric current flow. It is actually harder for holes to move than for free electrons to move and therefore the mobility of holes is less than that of free electrons. Holes are positively charged carriers.


[半導體產業, Taiwan]

- Semiconductors For Use In Electronic Circuits

In the past few years, growth of the global semiconductor industry has been driven largely by demand from electronics such as smartphones and the proliferation of applications including the Internet of Things and cloud computing. The global semiconductor sector's total revenue continues its robust growth well into the coming decade. Continued enhancements of existing products and the inclusion of emerging technology such as AI in products and 5G networks, as well as rapid growth in automotive and industrial electronics, will be some of the market's key driving forces. The bulk of semiconductor revenue will come from processing electronics (e.g. storage and cloud computing) and communication electronics (e.g. wireless). 

Semiconductors are used extensively in electronic circuits. As its name implies, a semiconductor is a material that conducts current, but only partly. The conductivity of a semiconductor is somewhere between that of an insulator, which has almost no conductivity, and a conductor, which has almost full conductivity. Most semiconductors are crystals made of certain materials, most commonly silicon.

Due to their role in the fabrication of electronic devices, semiconductors are an important part of our lives. Imagine life without electronic devices. There would be no smartphones, radios, TVs, computers, video games, or advanced medical diagnostic equipment.


- The Process for Manufacturing Semiconductor Devices

The process for manufacturing semiconductor devices consists of hundreds of steps. Semiconductor manufacturers must apply both precision and expertise when manufacturing semiconductor chips, transistors, and any other semiconductor products.  

To produce a semiconductor device, manufacturers must heat, cut, grind, and polish a semiconductor “ingot” into a wafer-thin form. Next, the wafer goes through a process called photoresistor masking. This applies highly complex circuits to the wafer and can take months to complete.

Afterward, the manufacturers subject the wafer to a process of chemical etching. This diffuses any areas not covered by photoresistor film. Lastly, the wafer undergoes “doping.” This adds boron or phosphorus to the semiconductor to alter its conductivity. 

Manufacturers must repeat these steps until completing the multiple layers that make up the semiconductor.


 - Top Semiconductor Leaders in the Industry

Semiconductor firms generally organize their activities around the two main stages of semiconductor production: design and manufacturing. Companies that focus only on design are referred to as “fabless” firms, while companies that focus only on manufacturing are called “foundries.” Semiconductor firms that do both are called Integrated Device Manufacturers, or IDMs. 

Semiconductors create economic tension because they represent a multibillion-dollar industry. While the US has historically maintained leadership in the semiconductor industry, more competitors have risen in other countries. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), the United States owns 46 percent of the market share for global sales of semiconductors. The following companies represent the top five semiconductor industry leaders, in order of market share:

  • Intel Corporation
  • Samsung Corporation
  • NVIDIA Corporation
  • Texas Instruments Incorporated
  • Broadcom Inc.

Of these companies, Samsung is headquartered in South Korea while the rest reside in the US.

While currently the US maintains its industry dominance, experts eye China as the next large competitor. Semiconductor sales and marketing teams should prepare accordingly to deal with this rising contender.


[More to come ...]

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