Future of Semiconductor Performance

It’s no exaggeration to claim the semiconductor industry makes modern life possible. Without semiconductor chips, smartphones, televisions, computers, health care equipment, military devices, transportation, and thousands of other devices could not function.

Over 100 billion integrated circuits see daily use internationally, and demand continues to grow, thanks in large part to advancement in the rapidly developing markets for artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, and the Internet of Things.

Thus far, the industry has managed to consistently provide more powerful integrated chips in response to demand, allowing electronic innovations to develop at a staggering rate: today’s smartphones have more power, speed, and capabilities than the most advanced computers of the 1960s.

That said, the increasing demands for smaller, faster semiconductor chips raises an important question: Is the system scaling made possible by Moore’s Law reaching its limits? And if so, how can semiconductor manufacturers surmount this technological roadblock?


Future challenges facing semiconductor performance

The need for viable, cost-efficient organic and compound semiconductors is a matter of some concern for the industry. One of the largest challenges the market faces is the need to replace existing semiconductor materials before the needs of high-performance computing and electronic devices exceed the limitations of existing semiconductor technology.

What challenges might hinder the future of semiconductor performance?

The greatest challenge semiconductor manufacturing faces at present is what industry experts see as the end to Moore’s Law. A constant in the industry for the last fifty years, Moore’s Law posits that the number of transistors on a semiconductor chip doubles every eighteen months while the cost of said chip is halved. Smaller chips with more densely packed transistors allow the production of smaller, more powerful electronic devices.

Moore’s Law has its limits, however. At some point, the industry will reach the physical limitations of existing semiconductor materials, making it impossible to continue doubling transistors indefinitely. This limit is expected to be reached in the 2020s and could have grave implications for the future of AI and high-performance computing.

The International Roadmap for Devices and Systems (IRDS™) and the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) see two interconnected solutions to overcoming existing obstacles to Moore’s Law: More Moore and More than Moore.

What recommendations for semiconductor manufacturers do More Moore and More than Moore put forward?

More Moore (PDF, 2 MB) recommends reducing chip size and increasing logic and memory capabilities through improvements in logic, dynamic random-access memory, and nonvolatile memory systems, pushing chip performance beyond existing complementary metal-oxide semiconductor limits. And More than Moore recommends the growth of silicon technologies that do not scale with Moore’s Law, such as radio frequency, solid-state lighting, system in package, and organic technology.

What other technologies might offer solutions to save the future of semiconductor performance?

Alternate types of semiconductor, such as organic and compound semiconductors, could provide a way to meet the increasing demands of modern electronics. Compound semiconductors combine two or more elements to produce materials capable of outperforming silicon and will play a large role in the development of 5G technologies and autonomous vehicles.

Other possible solutions include replacing silicon with graphene and carbon nanotubes, although the necessary technology is in its infancy. Quantum computing has been put forward as a possible solution to tackling the industry’s problem. Why? Unlike existing computers, which function on a binary system, where a bit exists as either a 0 or a 1, quantum computers would encode information as quantum bits, which can exist in superpositions.

A quantum computer would not be limited to one of two states. Instead, it would contain multiple states simultaneously. While much of the research in the field remains theoretical, quantum computing has the potential to be, without exaggeration, millions of times more powerful than today’s most advanced computer processes.

Semiconductors will play a vital role in quantum computing, providing the heterostructures, SRT-enabled heterostructures, and quantum dot array needed to turn quantum theory into a practical reality.

How will the Internet of Things affect the future of semiconductor technology?

The Internet of Things presents semiconductor manufacturers with a different problem—one of demand. By 2025, there will be more than 74 billion Internet of Things devices (PDF, 2 MB) installed globally. By 2030, that number is expected to reach 125 billion—and all will need semiconductors to function. Resource scarcity, combined with increased demand, could increase the price of raw materials, increasing competition and costs in the supply chain.

With widespread adoption of the Internet of Things comes the challenge of reliability. As Industry Week notes, the reliability of many consumer-facing semiconductor devices is “good enough,” but “when it comes to medical devices, self-driving cars, and many industrial/infrastructure IoT applications, good enough won’t cut it.”

With reliability will come the need to ensure device longevity for smart-city devices. Smart street lighting, parking sensors, traffic analytics, autonomous vehicle fleets, and Bluetooth beacons will need to be future-proofed to allow for continuous use. This only makes sense—many smart-city semiconductors will be located in hard-to-reach places, so the less they need maintenance or upgrades, the better. Such systems will require the creation of high-quality, customized semiconductors, opening up yet another revenue stream for the semiconductor industry.

What would happen if semiconductor performance failed to evolve along with new technology?

Should semiconductor performance not keep pace with new technology, improvements in chip speed and affordability will slow over time. The efficiency and power of semiconductor devices would eventually hit a wall as Moore’s Law comes to an end.

The result would be stagnation of technological advancements at a global level, restricting the possibilities offered by AI, high-performance computing, and the Internet of Things. Organic and compound semiconductors offer a promising solution, ensuring the industry keeps up with the ever-increasing demand for smaller, more powerful electronics.

Read more about future of semiconductor performance in the IRDS™ Roadmap

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Semiconductor industry trends forcing change

Advances in technology and the challenges of semiconductor manufacturing transactions continually change the nature of the semiconductor market. Such changes can be disruptive, but they can also present opportunities for increased market share and industry growth.

What are some positive trends in the semiconductor industry right now?

Most end users have little concept of how semiconductors work, but that hasn’t stopped demand for integrated circuits from rising. The smartphone industry’s reliance on semiconductor chips continues to benefit the industry through ongoing consumer demand for the latest and fastest devices while the automotive industry’s need for onboard computers, sensors, and monitoring hardware drives a similar demand.

Increased industrial automation and the rise of the “smart city” are expected to strengthen the compound semiconductor market in the near future. And, of course, demand for AI and the Internet of Things will continue. Both are emerging technologies with widespread applications for both businesses and consumers.

Even as demand increases, competition within the market is expected to increase. China, for example, is on track to increase its industry revenue by 25 percent in 2019 and has moved from low-cost production to high-value specialized semiconductors, with a focus on the fields of AI and smartphones.

This increase in competition forces companies to focus on innovation while providing niche environments for smaller companies looking to break into specialized areas of the market.

How have trends in the semiconductor industry changed applications of technology?

The introduction of compound semiconductors will change technology applications by making more powerful, smaller, and more reliable semiconductor equipment possible. Already, the small size of most integrated circuits allows the incorporation of electronics into almost any product, including smart clothing capable of monitoring the wearer’s health.

How have trends in the semiconductor industry changed the tech industry in general?

Larger companies such as Samsung, Huawei, Apple, Google, and Amazon are designing their own integrated circuit lines to maximize performance and user experience. Tesla is developing specialized semiconductor chips to handle the increased demands AI places on them. To add, aerospace and military interests increasingly design their own chips as well.

These moves, coupled with the Chinese semiconductor manufacturers’ shift from low-cost to high-value end products, suggest the market will soon focus more on specialized semiconductor equipment and less on cheaper, more generalized chips. Investors and companies alike need to consider the impact this trend toward in-house integrated circuit production will have on the future.

Read more about future of semiconductor performance in the IRDS™ Roadmap

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How to plan for the future of semiconductor performance

According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, worldwide sales of semiconductor equipment has increased by a compound annual rate of almost 7 percent each year since 1998. While the market had a tumultuous year in 2019, the sheer number of devices requiring semiconductor chips means the future of semiconductors looks very healthy—provided the industry can keep pace with emerging technology.

What fundamental changes will semiconductors experience in the future?

A series of technological innovations are poised to disrupt the supply chain. High-κ dielectrics are already improving miniaturization processes—these are insulators that don’t show the temperature dependence resistivity of metals or silicon dioxide, thereby resolving heat dissipation issues.

New structures such as alternative high-mobility channel materials, 3-D integration schemes for heterogenous stacking, and gate-all-around transistors are likely to be introduced into the market soon as well. On a less technical note, industry trends such as the adoption of 5G networks, AI systems, smart cities, and the Internet of Things will drive the search for more efficient semiconductor materials, which could include gallium arsenide, gallium phosphide, indium phosphide, cadmium telluride, and zinc selenide. Organic semiconductors also hold promise as future materials.

What is the future of the organic semiconductor field?

Next generation organic superconductors—polymers made up of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, or oxygen—will be printable, allowing for faster production of sensors, circuits, and displays. Inexpensive, flexible, and functionally unbreakable, transparent organic semiconductors consume low amounts of power.

Organic semiconductor technology could be used to develop ultrathin displays and more efficient photovoltaic systems. Other possible applications include the following:

  • biomedical equipment
  • organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays
  • radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags
  • environmental monitoring sensors
  • organic field-effect transistors (OFETs)
  • smart clothes
  • photoreceptors

Read more about future of semiconductor performance in the IRDS™ Roadmap

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What is the future of the semiconductor industry?

Without a doubt the technological future of the entire world depends on the continued success of the semiconductor industry. So, no pressure—it must somehow overcome its limitations of current semiconductor manufacturing to meet increased market demands. To do so, the industry must push past its physical and material limitations of existing silicon-based semiconductor chips and transform its manufacturing processes.

What does the future of the semiconductor industry look like?

In an increasingly data-driven world, semiconductors must be able to meet the demands of access to big data and the need for instant data generation. Ultralow devices with always-on features and high-performance devices capable of instant data generation are both largely responsible for driving this demand.

Meeting these demands will soon force semiconductor manufacturers to rethink their manufacturing processes. At present, manufacturing challenges are met by individual vendors, testing companies, equipment makers, and the like.

To reach higher standards while improving revenue and market share, a more holistic view of the manufacturing process may be required to meet capacity, cost, and reliability quotas. A holistic approach to their processes may allow semiconductor manufacturers to maximize the capabilities of silicon-based products, extending the amount of time needed to research new semiconductor materials and introduce them into the manufacturing process.

How will the semiconductor industry help society as technology advances?

It’s hard to imagine any technology advancing without the semiconductor industry. In coming years, advances in AI, robotic devices, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, high-performance computing, and the ever-growing Internet of Things will have the potential to improve society and individual quality of life.

For example, manufacturers are increasingly looking at automation as a means to reduce injuries to workers in warehouses while homeowners are shopping around for better smart home technologies to help them monitor and control energy usage. These advances, among others, would not be possible without semiconductor chips.

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Interested in learning more about future of semiconductor performance? Consider reading the International Roadmap for Devices and Systems (IRDS™). The IRDS™ is a set of predictions that examine the future of the electronics, semiconductor, and computer industries over a fifteen-year horizon. It encompasses a number of critical domains and technologies, from application needs down through devices and manufacturing. Join the IRDS™ Technical Community to download the roadmap and stay informed of our latest activities.

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