Power of semiconductors fuels political change

The worldwide political change which is currently taking place in the Middle East is being fuelled by semiconductors.

“The world is moving at a dizzying pace because of the power of interconnection,” says Dave Bell, CEO of Intersil, “the power of smartphones means people can see what’s happening in their own countries which previously would have been suppressed by governments.”

“It’s the first time in history that has happened – and it’s been happening in the last few months,” says Bell, “it’s an exciting time to be in the industry which is in the middle of it all – semiconductors.”

The enabler

The four key elements allowing people to communicate images and video clips from anywhere in the world are smartphones, 3G connections, data centres which allow the storage of images on a massive scale and broadband access. And the enabler of all four elements is semiconductors.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” said Bell, “people are getting their information from grass roots sources. News channels like CNN and Fox have to rely on Internet sources or risk falling behind.”

With Moore’s Law now looking good for another ten years, says Bell, the pace of worldwide political change will increase. However, the Moore’s Law progression down the nanometre trail will not be achieved without difficulty, says Ravi Subramanian, CEO of Berkley Design Automation.

Subramanian starts at the macro level, pointing out that where GDP is growing at its fastest in the world, per capita income is at its lowest.

“In the next three or four decades people with incomes of $6,000 to $30,000 will be dramatically increasing,” says Subramanian. He reckons this growth will peak in China during this decade and in India during the decade after next. “170 people join the middle class every day,” he says.

Price points

The consequence of all this, said Subramanian, is that: “Electronics companies are pushing emerging economy price points which are pushing platforms to deep sub-nanometre nodes.”

Subramanian points out that 80% of the industry’s revenues come from 90nm parts and below, with the industry splitting into two groups: those companies which can command the high margins of mixed signal ASSPs; and the catalogue players. However there are, said Subramanian, technical bottlenecks which need attention.

First, high speed I/O – like USB, SerDes and HDMI; second, clocking – PLLs, DLLs and putting multiple PLLs on a chip; third, memory interfaces – NAND is going from tens of Mbits/sec to Gbits/sec because of the need to handle video; and fourth, RF performance bottlenecks.

The biggest obstacle to overcoming these problems is the increasing difficulty of scaling, says Subraiman, which has now reached the point where physical effects start to dominate, with the key problems facing designers being noise, mismatch, variability and parasitics.

As 2D scaling becomes tougher and more costly, the pressure to move to 3D ICs is mounting.

“More and more ICs will move into the third dimension because of cost,” says Wally Rhines, CEO of Mentor, “at 20nm there is a great deal of discussion about the cost of double-patterning. The traditional rule that there’s a 15% average decline in wafer cost per lithography generation is likely to be breached, and maybe a change in lithography won’t decrease the cost of a wafer. So the vertical dimension will take the place of 2-D scaling.”

Rhines reckons that, for the next two to three years, it will be more usual to use what’s called 2.5D-ICs where multiple die are connected by an interposer – often in a side-by-side configuration.

However in five years’ time true 3D-ICs – where die are stacked with the connections made by through-hole vias (also called through silicon vias or TSVs) – will be used.

Innovative Micro Technology (IMT) of Santa Barbara, California is doing both 2.5D IC packaging using interposers to connect the die, and 3D IC packaging using TSVs on stacked die.

“TSVs are becoming a big deal – we’ve supported them for quite a while,” says Craig Trautman vice president of business development at IMT.

IMT says it is the largest pure-play MEMS foundry in America and claims to have made more MEMS switches, at 62 million, than the rest of the world’s MEMS manufacturers combined.

With MEMS sensors and actuators commanding a market worth $6.2 billion last year, according to IC Insights, this is now becoming a significant part of the $300 billion semiconductor market.

IMT makes a number of best in class claims for its MEMS processes. It claims to have made the world’s most precise MEMS putting 1m holes on a chip with a pitch of 22nm; it says it has made the world’s fastest MEMS with a device going from 0 to 1.4 metres/sec to 0 in 15 microseconds; it says it has made the world’s most sensitive MEMS – an attogram mass sensor with a Q factor of > 10,000; it says it has made the world’s most precise navigation device with inertial-grade gyros (<1º/hr drift) sensors for compasses; and it claims to have made the world’s most complex MEMS with 4 and 5 wafer bonded stack, on-board reflective and refractive optics, 3D microfluidics, magnetically-driven actuators and a range of materials.

“We’re not just an ordinary foundry,” says Trautman. With the University of Santa Barbara it has teamed up to develop cell therapy technology – using particle measurement with a Q factor > 10,000 to detect bacteria like e-coli or cancer cells which can then be used to devise customised treatments.

IMT has developed other technologies like micro-fluidics, micro-pumps, active medical dressings and others but does not use them to make any products of its own, but is prepared to license its technology.


The big growth is MEMS is coming from the consumer market which is worth $1.5 billion but growing at 18% CAGR, according to VTI Technologies, the Fin nish MEMS specialist, which is preparing a move into the consumer market.

Gyroscopes are the fastest-growing segment within the consumer market, and MEMS oscillators are expected to have the highest market value in 2015.

VTI, which had about $100 million in revenues last year, made its name in low-g accelerometers, being the No.1 supplier of low-g accelerometers for automotive use and the No.1 supplier of low-g accelerometers for cardiac pacemakers.

Up to now, VTI has manufactured in-house but, for the consumer market, the company will go to an Asian foundry to get access to eight inch wafers. Its in-house manufacturing is done on six inch wafers.

VTI’s products for the MEMS consumer market will be accelerometers, gyroscopes and timing devices for products like motion detectors, user interface control devices, GPS enhancement, speed and distance measurement for walking and running, activity monitoring and calorie expenditure.

Three-axis gyroscopes are a big and fast-growing market being used in all the tablets, Nintendo games consoles and top-end smartphones like iPhone, Samsung Nexus and LG Optimus.

Other MEMS apps like tiny ‘pico-projectors’ for mobile phones, and miniature actuators for autofocus in cameras, could catch on.

So the role for smartphones and tablets as the TV cameras of the citizen-broadcaster and the enabler of worldwide revolution, looks assured.

As Moore’s Law and MEMS technology makes phones and tablets cheaper and consequently more ubiquitous, the ability of despotic rulers to conceal the reality of what is happening inside their countries will be diminished.

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