Tag Archives: semiconductor technologies

How to Exclude China from the Global Technology Base: the Role of IMEC

The Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) located in Leuven, Belgium, does not design chips (like America’s Intel), manufacture them (like TSMC of Taiwan) or make any of the complicated gear (like ASML, a Dutch firm). Instead, it creates knowledge used by everyone in the $550bn chip business. Given chips’ centrality to the modern economy and increasingly to modern geopolitics, too, that makes it one of the most essential industrial research-and-development (R&D) center on the planet. Luc Van den hove, IMEC’s boss, calls it the “Switzerland of semiconductors”.

IMEC was founded in 1984 by a group of electronics engineers from the Catholic University of Leuven who wanted to focus on microprocessor research. In the early days it was bankrolled by the local Flemish government. Today IMEC maintains its neutrality thanks to a financial model in which no single firm or state controls a big share of its budget. The largest chunk comes from the Belgian government, which chips in some 16%. The top corporate contributors provide no more than 4% each. Keeping revenue sources diverse (partners span the length and breadth of the chip industry) and finite (its standard research contracts last three to five years) gives IMEC the incentive to focus on ideas that help advance chipmaking as a whole rather than any firm in particular.

A case in point is the development of extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV)…It took 20 years of R&D to turn the idea into manufacturing reality. IMEC acted as a conduit in that process… Advanced toolmakers want a way to circulate their intellectual property (IP) without the large companies gaining sway over it. The large companies, meanwhile, do not want to place all their bets on any one experimental idea that is expensive (as chipmaking processes are) and could become obsolete.

IMEC’s neutrality allows both sides to get around this problem. It collects all the necessary gear in one place, allowing producers to develop their technology in tandem with others. And everyone gets rights to the IP the institute generates. Mr Van den hove says that progress in the chip industry has been driven by the free exchange of knowledge, with IMEC acting as a “funnel” for ideas from all over the world…IMEC’s revenues, which come from the research contracts and from prototyping and design services, doubled between 2010 and 2020, to €678m ($773m).

The deepening rift between America, home to some of the industry’s biggest firms, and China, which imported $378bn-worth of chips last year, threatens IMEC’s spirit of global comity. China’s chip industry is increasingly shielded by an overbearing Communist Party striving for self-sufficiency, and ever more ostracized by outsiders as a result of American and European export controls. All this limits the extent to which IMEC can work with Chinese semiconductor companies…IMEC would not comment on individual partnerships but says it has “a few engagements with Chinese companies, however not on the most sensitive technologies, and always fully compliant with current European and US export regulations and directives”.

Excerpts from Neutral but not idle: IMEC offers neutral ground amid chip rivalries, Economist, Sept. 25, 2021

Can the Switzerland of Chips Crush the Global Economy?

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) has emerged over the past several years as the world’s most important semiconductor company, with enormous influence over the global economy. With a market cap of around $550 billion, it ranks as the world’s 11th most valuable company. Its dominance leaves the world in a vulnerable position, however. As more technologies require chips of mind-boggling complexity, more are coming from this one company, on an island that’s a focal point of tensions between the U.S. and China, which claims Taiwan as its own.

The situation is similar in some ways to the world’s past reliance on Middle Eastern oil, with any instability on the island threatening to echo across industries….Being dependent on Taiwanese chips “poses a threat to the global economy,” research firm Capital Economics recently wrote. Its technology is so advanced, Capital Economics said, that it now makes around 92% of the world’s most sophisticated chips, which have transistors that are less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Samsung Electronics Co. makes the rest. 

The U.S., Europe and China are scrambling to cut their reliance on Taiwanese chips. While the U.S. still leads the world in chip design and intellectual property with homegrown giants like Intel Corp. , Nvidia Corp. and Qualcomm, it now accounts for only 12% of the world’s chip manufacturing, down from 37% in 1990, according to Boston Consulting Group. President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $50 billion to help boost domestic chip production. China has made semiconductor independence a major tenet of its national strategic plan. The European Union aims to produce at least 20% of the world’s next-generation chips in 2030 as part of a $150 billion digital industries scheme.

The Taiwanese maker has also faced calls from the U.S. and Germany to expand supply due to factory closures and lost revenues in the auto industry, which was the first to get hit by the current chip shortage.

Semiconductors have become so complex and capital-intensive that once a producer falls behind, it’s hard to catch up. Companies can spend billions of dollars and years trying, only to see the technological horizon recede further. A single semiconductor factory can cost as much as $20 billion. One key manufacturing tool for advanced chip-making that imprints intricate circuit patterns on silicon costs upward of $100 million, requiring multiple planes to deliver

Taiwanese leaders refer to the local chip industry as Taiwan’s “silicon shield,” helping protect it from such conflict. Taiwan’s government has showered subsidies on the local chip industry over the years, analysts say.

Excerpts from Yang Jie et al., The World Relies on One Chip Maker in Taiwan, Leaving Everyone Vulnerable, WSJ, June 19, 2021

Designers Not Doers: Who’s Gonna Save the Chip Industry?

Although designing chips for electronic devices is now easier than ever, making them has never been harder requiring spending vast—and growing—sums on factories (called fabs) stuffed with ultra-advanced equipment.

At the turn of the millennium, a cutting-edge factory might have cost $1bn… More recently, a TSMC factory that produces 3 nm (nanometer) chips, completed in 2020, in southern Taiwan, cost $19.5bn. The firm is already pondering another for factory for 2nm chips, which will almost certainly be more. ..Asia’s nanoscale manufacturing duopoly remains fiercely competitive, as Samsung and TSMC keep each other on their toes… At some point, one company, in all likelihood TSMC, could be the last advanced fab standing. For years, says an industry veteran, tech bosses mostly ignored the problem in the hope it would go away. It has not…

The other big industry rupture is taking place in China. As America has lost ground in making chips, it has sought to ensure that China lags behind, too. The American tech embargo began as a narrow effort against Huawei over national security, but bans and restrictions now affect at least 60 firms, including many involved in chips. SMIC, China’s chip champion, has just been put on a blacklist, as has Xiaomi, a smartphone firm.

Excerpts from Betting All Chips, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021 and Semiconductors: A New Architecture, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021

Under Zero Trust: the U.S. Chip Resurgence

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched its Electronic Resurgence Initiative (ERI)  to help reboot a domestic chip industry that has been moving steadily offshore for decades…. Program officials and chip industry executives foresee the emergence of a “5th generation of computing” based on current cloud infrastructure while combining AI, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G wireless networks to deliver big data.

“The U.S. microelectronics industry is at an inflection point,” Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told the virtual ERI summit. After decades of offshoring of chip fabrication, packaging and testing capabilities, “How do we reverse this trend?”  The Defense Department is expanding its technology base efforts by implementing a “step-by-step process for reconstituting the microelectronics supply chain,” focusing on various segments of the semiconductor ecosystem, including memory devices, logic, ICs and advanced packaging along with testing and assembly.

“While DoD does not drive the electronics market,” constituting only about 1 percent of demand, “we can drive significant R&D,” ERI is advancing public-private partnerships that provide a framework for commercial innovation. The result would be “pathfinder projects” geared toward a renewal of U.S. chip manufacturing. As trade frictions with China grow, ERI is placing greater focus on ensuring the pedigree of U.S. electronics supply chain. “We need to find a path to domestic sources,” said Lord.

While nurturing government-industry partnerships as part of an emerging next-generation U.S. industrial policy, this year’s DARPA summit also emphasized chip standards and processes for securing fabs, foundry services, devices and foundational microelectronics. In that vein, U.S. officials stressed new chips metrics like “quantifiable assurance” to secure dual-use devices that could end up in weapons or an IoT device.

“Our interests to protect both the confidentiality and the integrity of our supply chain are aligned with commercial interests, and we will continue to work across government and industry to develop and implement our quantitative assurance strategy based on zero trust,” said Nicole Petta, principal director of DoD’s microelectronics office. The “zero trust” approach assumes no device is safe, and that all microelectronics components must be validated before deployment. The framework marks a philosophical departure from DoD’s “trusted foundry” approach instituted in the 1990s, largely because “perimeter defenses” failed to account for insider threats…

DARPA Chip Efforts Pivots to Securing US Supply Chain, https://www.hpcwire.com, Aug. 24, 2020

Your Death, My Life: Ericsson versus Huawei

The Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive effort to cripple China’s Huawei has presented Ericsson the opportunity to lead the rollout of 5G technology around the world.  The Swedish company is emerging as the steadiest player in the $80-billion-a-year cellular-equipment industry, telecommunications executives and analysts say, because it makes a technically advanced product that one rival, Nokia,was late to develop and that Huawei may not be able to make in the future because of recent U.S. measures.

The Trump administration last month stepped up efforts to hamper Huawei by imposing export restrictions that make it harder for the company to buy computer chips that are produced using U.S.-designed equipment —a move that could prevent it from manufacturing advanced 5G hardware. The U.S. has also sought to boost Huawei’s rivals by providing loans to wireless carriers in developing countries so they can buy equipment from non-Chinese suppliers, among other moves.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr in February suggested that the U.S. government take a financial stake in Ericsson or Nokia, or both, to “make it a more formidable competitor and eliminate concerns over its staying power.”

The White House quickly backed away from the idea….Ericsson provides equipment for all three major U.S. carriers: AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc….

Ericsson struggled in the cellular-equipment industry against China’s Huawei and ZTE Corp., which sold comparable products, often at lower prices. Among Ericsson’s key innovations are cellular antennas. Ericsson’s use a new technology, called massive multiple-input multiple-output, or massive MIMO, that sends wireless signals in strong jets to different devices. Typical cellular antennas, which sit on steel towers or rooftops, send wireless signals in a wide cone, similar to the way a garden hose sprays water.

Wireless carriers want Ericsson’s concentrated wireless technology because it enables fast connections and allows them to serve more customers using existing cellular towers. Building new towers is unattractive because it is a bureaucratic process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars….Ericsson notched a victory the spring of 2020 when it joined Huawei in winning 5G contracts to supply all three major wireless carriers in China, the world’s second-biggest telecom-equipment market

The big question for wireless carriers and equipment makers is whether Huawei can continue making massive MIMO 5G equipment with the quality that wireless carriers have come to expect. The technology requires supplies from the world’s top semiconductor companies, but the Trump administration’s recent actions may mean even foreign chip suppliers must seek Washington’s approval to sell to Huawei. For now, Ericsson is assuming China has advanced its own semiconductor industry enough to continue supplying Huawei.

Excerpts from Stu Woo, Ericsson Emerges as 5G Leader After U.S. Bruises Huawei, WSJ,  June 2, 2020

The Bloody Battle for Chip Hegemony

China’s Tsinghua Unigroup Ltd., a state-owned firm is spending $24 billion to build the country’s first advanced memory-chip factories. It’s part of the Chinese government’s plan to become a major player in the global chip market and the move is setting off alarms in Washington.  When Unigroup tried to buy U.S. semiconductor firms in 2015 and 2016, Washington shot down the bids. It is considering other moves to counter Beijing’s push.

China is aiming “to take over more and more segments of the semiconductor market,” says White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who fears Beijing will flood the market with inexpensive products and bankrupt U.S. companies.  Unigroup’s CEO Zhao Weiguo says he is only building his own factories due to Washington’s refusal to let him invest in the U.S. “Chinese companies have faced discrimination in many areas,” of technology, he says. “Abnormal discrimination.”

Semiconductors—the computer chips that enabled the digital age and power the international economy—have long been among the most globalized of industries, with design and manufacturing spread across dozens of countries.

Today, the industry is riven by a nationalist battle between China and the U.S., one that reflects broad currents reshaping the path of globalization. Washington accuses Beijing of using government financing and subsidies to try to dominate semiconductors as it did earlier with steel, aluminum, and solar power. China claims U.S. complaints are a poorly disguised attempt to hobble China’s development. Big U.S. players like Intel Corp. and Micron Technology Inc. find themselves in a bind—eager to expand in China but wary of losing out to state-sponsored rivals…

The new semiconductor battle marks a shift toward nationalism, trade battles and protected markets…The U.S. estimates China will eventually spend $150 billion [on developing s its indigenous semiconductor industry]  a figure equal to about half of global semiconductor sales annually.

Though Republicans and Democrats are at odds on many economic policy issues, they’re unified on this. An interagency working group on semiconductors, started by the Obama administration in 2015, has continued meeting under President Donald Trump. The group is weighing policies to make it more difficult for China to scoop up U.S. technology, according to people involved in the discussions.

One idea is tightening the rules covering U.S. approval of foreign investments to make it tougher for Chinese firms seen as security risks. Other options include trade sanctions, stricter export controls and added federal research spending

The U.S. views China as its biggest semiconductor challenge since Japan in the late 1980s. The U.S. triumphed then through trade sanctions and technological advances. Japanese firms couldn’t match U.S. microprocessor technology, which powered the personal computer revolution, and fell behind South Korea in low-margin memory chips.

China has advantages Japan didn’t. It is the world’s biggest chip market, consuming 58.5% of the global $354 billion semiconductor sales in 2015 according to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. That gives Beijing power to discriminate, if it wants, against overseas suppliers…Beijing’s semiconductor program shifted into high gear in 2012, when the value of its chip imports surged past its bill for crude oil for the first time…

Nearly 90% of the $190 billion worth of chips used in China are imported or produced in China by foreign-owned firms…The top 10 chip vendors in China by revenue are foreign.

“We cannot be reliant on foreign chips,” said China’s vice premier, Ma Kai in 2017…Beijing created a $20 billion national chip financing fund—dubbed the “Big Fund”— and set goals for China to become internationally competitive by 2030, with some companies becoming market leaders.  Local governments created at least 30 additional semiconductor funds, with announced financing of more than $100 billion. If all these projects are realized, the global supply of memory chips would outstrip demand by about 25% in 2020, estimates Bernstein Research, pushing prices down and battering profits of semiconductor companies globally… Beijing has been consolidating 600 small Chinese chip makers, many unprofitable, into a handful of larger companies China wants to compete internationally.

When the Big Fund financed an acquisition blitz, Unigroup was in the lead, bidding in 2015 for memory-chip maker Micron Technology, and then for a 15% stake in data storage firm Western Digital Corp.Some bids were so overvalued U.S. government officials joked the Chinese were willing to pay an “espionage premium.”  After a Chinese plan to buy a Royal Philips NV semiconductor-material unit fell apart, Phillips sold the unit to a U.S. private-equity group for about half the earlier price. Philips declined to comment.

The bids spooked Washington and the industry. In private meetings, Micron, Intel and others warned they faced an “existential threat” from China, say industry and government officials. The companies feared they were trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma. Each company was under pressure to sell to China for fear its competitors would sell if it didn’t.

In July 2017, Germany approved restrictions on foreign technology purchases, aimed at China, and the European Union also is considering barriers… The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S (CFIUS), an interagency review group, made clear most proposed acquisitions wouldn’t pass muster.

According to Rhodium Group, only about $4.4 billion in Chinese semiconductor acquisitions were completed since 2015. Unigroup’s bid for Micron fell apart. South Korea, Taiwan and Japan also blocked Chinese acquisition bids…

Mr. Trump proposed a 13% decrease in federal funding for basic research to $28.9 billion in fiscal year 2018, but semiconductor lobbyists say they hope to eke out an increase for chip-related research.

Chinese chip executives argue South Korea is a bigger threat to the U.S. chip industry due to its advanced technology.

After Unigroup’s plan to acquire Micron fell apart, it hired Charles Kau, the former head of Micron’s Taiwan joint-venture, and other experts from the island. It announced it would build its own memory chip facility—the mammoth Wuhan factories—at about the same price it would have paid for Micron.  Unigroup now has a new plan for Micron. It says it no longer wants to buy the firm, recognizing the chances of regulatory approval in the U.S. are nil, but says the two should work together to battle market leader Samsung Electronics Co. The combination of Micron technology and Chinese capital would help both companies take on the South Koreans, says Mr. Zhao, the Unigroup CEO.

Micron says the Federal Bureau of Investigation has begun investigating whether Micron employees in Taiwan who went to work for other firms, including Unigroup, have taken Micron technology with them.”

Excerpts from Bob Davis and Eva Dou, CHINA’S NEXT TARGET: U.S. MICROCHIP HEGEMONY, Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2017

Super Semiconductor Chips: Military

Competition for scarce electromagnetic (EM) spectrum is increasing, driven by a growing military and civilian demand for connected devices. As the spectrum becomes more congested, the Department of Defense (DoD) will need better tools for managing the EM environment and for avoiding interference from competing signals. One recent DARPA-funded advance, an exceptionally high-speed analog-to-digital converter (ADC), represents a major step forward. The ADC could help ensure the uninterrupted operation of spectrum-dependent military capabilities, including communications and radar, in contested EM environments. The advance was enabled by 32 nm silicon-on-insulator (SOI) semiconductor technologies available through DARPA’s ongoing partnership with GlobalFoundries, a manufacturer of highly-advanced semiconductor chips.

The EM spectrum, whose component energy waves include trillionth-of-a-meter-wavelength gamma rays to multi-kilometer-wavelength radio waves, is an inherently physical phenomenon. ADCs convert physical data—that is, analog data—on the spectrum into numbers that a digital computer can analyze and manipulate, an important capability for understanding and adapting to dynamic EM environments. Today’s ADCs, however, only process data within a limited portion of the spectrum at a given time. As a result, they can temporarily overlook critical information about radar, jamming, communications, and other potentially problematic EM signals. DARPA’s Arrays at Commercial Timescales (ACT) program addressed this challenge by supporting the development of an ADC with a processing speed nearly ten times that of commercially available, state-of-the-art alternatives. By leveraging this increased speed, the resulting ADC can analyze data from across a much wider spectrum range, allowing DoD systems to better operate in congested spectrum bands and to more rapidly react to spectrum-based threats.

How fast is fast? The new ADC samples and digitizes spectrum signals at a rate of over 60 billion times per second (60 GigaSamples/sec). …The new ADC can provide a “one-stop shop” for processing radar, communications and electronic warfare signals.

Desirable as these blazing sampling speeds are, they also pose challenges. The amount of data generated is staggering, reaching nearly a terabyte per second. This high data rate requires on-chip data-management circuitry that allows signals to be processed locally on the ADC, reducing the amount of data that must be communicated to neighboring electronics. This on-board digital signal processing burns quite a bit of power and also demands state-of-the-art transistors. The 32 nm SOI technology offered by Global Foundries, the only certified DoD supplier of this circuit technology, provided ACT with the leading-edge transistors needed to sample and process the RF spectrum without exceeding power or data-transfer limitations.

Upcoming ACT designs will go further. By using GlobalFoundries’ even more advanced 14 nm technology, ACT’s next generation of ADCs aim to reduce power requirements by an additional 50 percent and enable yet smaller and lighter systems that can sample even greater swaths of the spectrum.

Excerpts from New Chips Ease Operations In Electromagnetic Environs, Jan. 11, 2016