The semiconductor industry is the aggregate collection of companies engaged in the design and fabrication of semiconductors. It formed around 1960, once the fabrication of semiconductor devices became a viable business.
As the 2020 edition of the International Roadmap for Devices and Systems (IRDS™) reveals, new semiconductor applications are driving technological development and spurring problem-solving and innovation. Amid new demand, semiconductor companies are responding with a combination of More Moore, More than Moore, and Beyond CMOS. In what follows, we explore these developments in semiconductor technologies and new applications driving transformation within the industry.
Companies dominate the global semiconductor industry in the United States, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the Netherlands.
While French suggested that China could use its technology to replace semiconductors purchased from the United States, other experts foretold industry struggles. Regardless of any actual outcome of the trade war, the trade war’s uncertainty and risk created difficulties for the semiconductor industry.
Unique industry features include continuous growth but in a cyclical pattern with high volatility. While the current 20-year annual average growth of the semiconductor industry is 13%, this has been accompanied by equally above-average market volatility, which can lead to significant if not dramatic cyclical swings. This has required high degrees of flexibility and innovation to continually adjust to the market’s rapid pace of change. Many products embedding semiconductor devices often have a concise life cycle.
In the past, creating a newer, faster-integrated circuit triggered the design of new personal computers. But today, the relationship between new devices and semiconductor tech is reversed: the design of new smartphones triggers the creation of new semiconductor devices.
These recent transformations are part of a broader shift within the industry. The industry is moving away from being a monoculture and toward more diversity and innovation. This promises to eliminate some of the unfortunate consequences of previous industry development. Namely, this shift reverses the architecture and industry consolidation that has limited industry participation and innovation and caused insecurity within the past industry.
The rapid development of smartphones, computers, and other electronics has significantly downscaled devices’ physical size. This, in turn, has necessitated a constant improvement in the semiconductor industry. As noted above, semiconductor technology has been advancing for decades in line with Moore’s law. However, the industry also appears to be reaching the limits of miniaturization with existing technologies.
These limits have led to innovation with new materials to complement existing CMOS technology and achieve More Moore. For example, graphene and related two-dimensional (2-D) materials have great potential to overcome the limitations of silicon technology. They offer hope for improvements in both device component function and performance in computational and noncomputational applications.
Integrating 2-D materials with silicon technology in computational systems can reduce doping challenges, contact resistance, and dielectrics/encapsulation. These materials can be integrated into future cameras, low-power optical data communications, and gas sensors and biosensors in noncomputational applications.
Compound semiconductors, which combine two or more chemical elements, are also at the forefront of developing semiconductor technologies. Companies are interested in compound semiconductors made of chemicals such as gallium nitride or gallium arsenide, for example, because of how they operate compared to silicon.
Compound semiconductors can operate at higher frequencies and higher temperatures and emit and detect light more efficiently. They have great potential value for applications involving power electronics, radio-frequency communications such as Wi-Fi, and photonics such as solar cells.
As market demands spur new semiconductor devices, new technologies and applications significantly impact the semiconductor industry. AI, for example, promises to drive the significant expansion of the semiconductor industry due to high demand.
Much of this demand will likely stem from the automotive market, which is expected to grow the fastest in the AI sector through 2022. Autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, are equipped with sensors to “see” the world around them.
Self-driving cars are already on the roads today, and they are likely to play a disruptive role in personal transportation and many other industries. The coming years will witness a massive spike in demand for AI-tailored semiconductors as connectivity, sensing, and instant computing become increasingly central to everyday devices.
Semiconductors already play a prominent role in people’s technology every day. And as technology continues to expand and transform rapidly, mainly through the Internet of Things, semiconductors promise to follow. Although change is nothing new to this industry, upcoming technological developments offer something new and exciting for semiconductors in the future.