Latest trends and development directions in semiconductor design

April 1, 2023
1681442487

Semiconductor design is a vital and challenging field that drives innovation and growth in various industries and applications. However, semiconductor designers face increasing pressure to deliver faster, better, and cheaper products in a dynamic and competitive market. How can they overcome these challenges and create new value for themselves and their customers? In this article, we will explore some of the latest trends and development directions that are shaping the future of semiconductor design.

We will discuss how these trends can help semiconductor designers improve their efficiency, quality, and innovation, as well as the benefits and challenges they entail. We will also provide some examples and best practices from leading semiconductor companies and researchers.

Trend 1: Using artificial intelligence in semiconductor design

Artificial intelligence (AI) is opening new possibilities in industries ranging from agriculture to medicine. It brings more opportunities to semiconductor design, too. AI can help improve design efficiency, quality, and innovation by automating tasks, optimizing processes, and generating new solutions.

Using artificial intelligence in semiconductor design
Using artificial intelligence in semiconductor design

Examples of AI applications in semiconductor design

AI can be applied at different stages of semiconductor design, from research and development to verification and testing. Some of the examples are:

  • Generative design: AI can help generate novel chip architectures and layouts that meet the performance, power, and area requirements. For instance, Google used a reinforcement learning algorithm to design a chip floorplan that achieved 80% utilization and reduced wire length by 20% compared to human experts.
  • Layout synthesis: AI can help automate the process of converting a circuit schematic into a physical layout that can be fabricated. For instance, Synopsys used a deep neural network to synthesize standard cell layouts that achieved 15% improvement in power-performance-area trade-off compared to conventional methods.
  • Verification: AI can help verify the functionality and reliability of a chip design before fabrication. For instance, Siemens used a machine learning algorithm to detect errors in analog circuits that reduced the verification time by 90% compared to manual methods.
  • Testing: AI can help test the quality and performance of a chip after fabrication. For instance, Intel used a deep learning algorithm to predict the failure rate of chips based on their electrical characteristics and reduced the testing time by 30% compared to traditional methods.

Benefits and challenges of using AI in semiconductor design

Using AI in semiconductor design can offer significant advantages, such as reducing time to market, improving design quality, and enhancing design innovation. However, it also comes with some difficulties, such as data availability, security, and ethics and regulation. Therefore, semiconductor designers need to balance the opportunities and risks of using AI in their work, and adopt appropriate measures to address the challenges. For example, they can:

  • Collect and label data in a cost-effective, timely, and privacy-preserving manner
  • Encrypt, authenticate, and monitor the data and algorithms to prevent unauthorized access or manipulation
  • Follow ethical principles and guidelines to ensure the accountability, transparency, fairness, and explainability of the algorithms

By leveraging AI effectively and responsibly, semiconductor designers can create new value for themselves and their customers.

Trend 2: Exploring new opportunities to keep electronics cool

Semiconductor design is facing a critical issue of thermal management, especially for high-performance computing devices and 5G applications. As semiconductor devices become smaller, faster, and more powerful, they generate more heat that needs to be dissipated efficiently and effectively. Excessive heat can degrade the performance, reliability, and lifespan of semiconductor devices, as well as increase the energy consumption and environmental impact. Therefore, semiconductor designers need to explore new opportunities to keep electronics cool.

Exploring new opportunities to keep electronics cool
Exploring new opportunities to keep electronics cool

Examples of novel cooling solutions for semiconductors

There are different types of cooling solutions for semiconductors, such as air cooling, liquid cooling, immersion cooling, and spray cooling. However, these solutions may not be sufficient or suitable for some applications that require higher cooling capacity or lower noise level. Therefore, some novel cooling solutions have been developed or proposed, such as:

  • Microfluidics: This solution involves using microchannels or microjets to circulate a coolant fluid through or over the semiconductor device. The coolant fluid can be water, oil, or other liquids with high thermal conductivity. Microfluidics can provide high heat transfer coefficients and low thermal resistance by increasing the surface area and reducing the flow length. For instance, JetCool Technologies used microfluidics to cool a 1kW/cm 2 heat flux with a temperature rise of less than 1°C.
  • Phase-change materials: This solution involves using materials that can change their physical state (such as from solid to liquid) when absorbing or releasing heat. Phase-change materials can store and release large amounts of latent heat during phase transitions, which can help regulate the temperature fluctuations of semiconductor devices. For instance, Outlast Technologies used phase-change materials to create thermal management fabrics that can absorb and release heat to maintain a comfortable temperature.
  • Nanomaterials: This solution involves using materials that have nanoscale structures or features that can enhance their thermal properties. Nanomaterials can have higher thermal conductivity, specific heat capacity, or surface area than conventional materials, which can help improve the heat transfer and storage performance. For instance, Carbon Revolution used carbon nanotubes to create lightweight and strong carbon fiber wheels that can reduce the heat generation and improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles.

Advantages and Limitations of novel cooling solutions for Semiconductors

Novel cooling solutions for semiconductors can offer some advantages over traditional cooling solutions, such as:

  • Higher cooling capacity: Novel cooling solutions can achieve higher heat removal rates and lower temperature rises than traditional cooling solutions by using more efficient heat transfer mechanisms or materials.
  • Lower noise level: Novel cooling solutions can reduce the noise level generated by fans or pumps by using passive or silent cooling methods or materials.
  • Smaller size and weight: Novel cooling solutions can reduce the size and weight of the cooling system by using compact or lightweight cooling components or materials.

However, novel cooling solutions for semiconductors also have some limitations that need to be considered, such as:

  • Higher cost: Novel cooling solutions may require higher initial investment or operational cost than traditional cooling solutions by using more complex or expensive cooling components or materials.
  • Lower scalability: Novel cooling solutions may have lower scalability or compatibility than traditional cooling solutions by using more customized or specialized cooling components or materials.
  • Higher reliability risk: Novel cooling solutions may introduce new reliability risks or challenges than traditional cooling solutions by using more novel or unproven cooling components or materials.

Trend 3: Digitally transforming and digitizing many parts of their processes

Semiconductor design is undergoing a digital transformation and digitization that can help semiconductor companies enhance their agility, resilience, and competitiveness in a dynamic market. Digital transformation refers to the use of digital technologies to create new or modify existing business models, processes, products, or services. Digitization refers to the conversion of analog information into digital formats that can be processed by computers.

digital transformation and digitization
digital transformation and digitization

Examples of digital tools and platforms for semiconductor design

Digital tools and platforms can be applied at different stages of semiconductor design, from research and development to verification and testing. Some of the examples are:

  • Cloud computing: Cloud computing can provide scalable, flexible, and cost-effective access to computing resources and services over the Internet. Cloud computing can help semiconductor designers store, process, and analyze large amounts of data, as well as collaborate and share information across teams and locations. For instance, Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers cloud solutions for semiconductor design, such as AWS Graviton2 processors that are based on Arm architecture.
  • Edge computing: Edge computing can provide low-latency, high-bandwidth, and secure data processing and storage at the edge of the network, closer to the data sources and users. Edge computing can help semiconductor designers reduce the reliance on centralized servers, improve the performance and reliability of applications, and enable real-time analytics and decision-making. For instance, Intel offers edge computing solutions for semiconductor design, such as Intel DevCloud for the Edge which allows developers to prototype and test edge applications.
  • Digital twins: Digital twins can create virtual models of physical systems or processes that can simulate and optimize their behavior and performance. Digital twins can help semiconductor designers improve their design efficiency, quality, and innovation by enabling faster iterations, eliminating defects, and exploring new solutions. For instance, Siemens offers digital twin solutions for semiconductor design, such as Siemens EDA that enables chip design verification and validation.
  • Blockchain: Blockchain can provide a distributed ledger system that can record and verify transactions in a secure, transparent, and immutable way. Blockchain can help semiconductor designers enhance their data integrity, traceability, and accountability by enabling data sharing and collaboration across multiple parties without intermediaries. For instance, IBM offers blockchain solutions for semiconductor design, such as IBM Blockchain Platform that allows developers to build and deploy blockchain applications.

Opportunities and challenges of using digital tools and platforms for semiconductor design

Using digital tools and platforms for semiconductor design can offer some opportunities, such as:

  • Increasing productivity: Digital tools and platforms can help semiconductor designers automate tasks, optimize processes, and accelerate cycles by using more efficient and effective computing resources and services.
  • Improving quality: Digital tools and platforms can help semiconductor designers enhance their design quality by using more accurate and reliable data analysis and simulation methods.
  • Boosting innovation: Digital tools and platforms can help semiconductor designers create new value by using more diverse and novel data sources and solutions.

However, using digital tools and platforms for semiconductor design also poses some challenges, such as:

  • Interoperability: Digital tools and platforms may have different standards or formats that may not be compatible or consistent with each other or with existing systems or processes. Therefore, interoperability measures such as data integration or conversion are needed to ensure seamless data exchange and communication.
  • Standardization: Digital tools and platforms may have different regulations or policies that may not be aligned or compliant with each other or with industry or government requirements. Therefore, standardization measures such as certification or accreditation are needed to ensure legal and ethical data use and protection.
  • Security: Digital tools and platforms may introduce new threats or risks to the data security or privacy of semiconductor designers or their customers. Therefore, security measures such as encryption or authentication are needed to prevent unauthorized access or manipulation.

Trend 4: Bringing manufacturing closer to home with both entirely new fabs and the expansion of existing facilities

Semiconductor design is influenced by geopolitical factors, trade tensions, and supply chain disruptions that have increased the need for localization and friend-sharing of semiconductor production. Localization refers to the process of producing semiconductors in the same region or country where they are consumed or designed. Friendshoring refers to the process of producing semiconductors in countries that have friendly relations or alliances with the consuming or designing countries.

semiconductor fab
semiconductor fab

Examples of fab construction projects in the United States and other regions

Fab construction projects are underway or announced in various regions and countries, especially in the United States, which is becoming a hot spot for fab building. Some of the examples are:

  • Intel: Intel plans to invest $20 billion to build two new fabs in Arizona, which will produce chips using its 7 nm and 5 nm process technologies. Intel also plans to invest $3.5 billion to upgrade its existing fab in New Mexico, which will produce advanced packaging solutions. Intel also plans to invest $100 billion over the next decade to build new fabs in Europe.
  • Samsung: Samsung plans to invest $17 billion to build a new fab in Texas, which will produce chips using its 3 nm process technology. Samsung also plans to invest $116 billion over the next decade to expand its existing fabs in South Korea, which will produce chips using its 4 nm and 5 nm process technologies.
  • TSMC: TSMC plans to invest $12 billion to build a new fab in Arizona, which will produce chips using its 5 nm process technology. TSMC also plans to invest $100 billion over the next three years to expand its existing fabs in Taiwan, which will produce chips using its 3 nm and 2 nm process technologies.
  • GlobalFoundries: GlobalFoundries plans to invest $4 billion to build a new fab in Singapore, which will produce chips using its 22 nm FD-SOI process technology. GlobalFoundries also plans to invest $1.4 billion to expand its existing fabs in Germany and New York, which will produce chips using its 12 nm FinFET and 14 nm FinFET process technologies.
  • Texas Instruments: Texas Instruments plans to invest $1.15 billion to build a new fab in Texas, which will produce analog chips using its 65 nm BCD process technology. Texas Instruments also plans to invest $900 million to expand its existing fab in Japan, which will produce analog chips using its 300 mm wafer technology.

Implications and trade-offs of building new fabs or expanding existing ones

Building new fabs or expanding existing ones can have some implications and trade-offs for semiconductor companies, such as:

  • Capital investment: Building new fabs or expanding existing ones requires significant capital investment, which can affect the cash flow and profitability of semiconductor companies. However, capital investment can also generate long-term returns by increasing production capacity and market share.
  • Labor availability: Building new fabs or expanding existing ones requires skilled labor, which can be scarce or expensive in some regions or countries. However, labor availability can also create employment opportunities and talent development for local communities.
  • Infrastructure development: Building new fabs or expanding existing ones requires adequate infrastructure, such as water, electricity, transportation, and communication, which can be lacking or costly in some regions or countries. However, infrastructure development can also improve the quality of life and economic growth for local communities.
  • Environmental regulation: Building new fabs or expanding existing ones requires compliance with environmental regulation, such as emission standards, waste management, and energy efficiency, which can vary across regions or countries. However, environmental regulation can also encourage sustainability practices and innovation for semiconductor companies.

Trend 5: Establishing and accelerating the path toward achieving environmental, social, and governance goals

Semiconductor design is becoming a strategic priority for sustainability amid growing environmental concerns and social expectations. Sustainability refers to the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability encompasses environmental, social, and governance (ESG) aspects that affect the long-term performance and impact of semiconductor companies.

Establishing and accelerating the path toward achieving environmental, social, and governance goals
Establishing and accelerating the path toward achieving environmental, social, and governance goals

Examples of initiatives and best practices for semiconductor sustainability

Semiconductor companies can adopt various initiatives and best practices to improve their sustainability performance, such as:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions: Semiconductor companies can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by using renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and adopting low-carbon technologies. For instance, Intel plans to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its global operations by 2040 and use 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
  • Saving water resources: Semiconductor companies can save water resources by using water recycling systems, improving water efficiency, and adopting water conservation technologies. For instance, Samsung plans to reuse 100% of its wastewater from its semiconductor fabs by 2030.
  • Minimizing waste generation: Semiconductor companies can minimize waste generation by using circular economy principles, improving material efficiency, and adopting waste reduction technologies. For instance, TSMC plans to achieve zero waste to landfill from its semiconductor fabs by 2030.
  • Managing chemical usage: Semiconductor companies can manage chemical usage by using green chemistry principles, improving chemical safety, and adopting chemical substitution technologies. For instance, GlobalFoundries plans to phase out per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from its semiconductor fabs by 2025.

Drivers and barriers for implementing sustainability measures in semiconductor design

Implementing sustainability measures in semiconductor design can have some drivers and barriers, such as:

  • Customer demand: Customer demand can be a driver or a barrier for implementing sustainability measures in semiconductor design. On one hand, customers may prefer or require semiconductor products that are more sustainable or have lower environmental impact. On the other hand, customers may prioritize or expect semiconductor products that are cheaper or have higher performance.
  • Regulatory pressure: Regulatory pressure can be a driver or a barrier for implementing sustainability measures in semiconductor design. On one hand, regulators may impose or incentivize semiconductor companies to comply with sustainability standards or goals. On the other hand, regulators may vary or conflict across regions or countries in terms of sustainability requirements or policies.
  • Innovation potential: Innovation potential can be a driver or a barrier for implementing sustainability measures in semiconductor design. On one hand, innovation can enable or facilitate semiconductor companies to adopt new technologies or solutions that are more sustainable or have lower environmental impact. On the other hand, innovation can challenge or disrupt semiconductor companies to change their existing technologies or solutions that are less sustainable or have higher environmental impact.
  • Cost-benefit analysis: Cost-benefit analysis can be a driver or a barrier for implementing sustainability measures in semiconductor design. On one hand, cost-benefit analysis can justify or support semiconductor companies to invest in sustainability measures that can generate long-term returns or benefits. On the other hand, cost-benefit analysis can deter or hinder semiconductor companies to invest in sustainability measures that can incur short-term costs or risks.

Conclusion

In this article, we explored the latest trends and development directions in semiconductor design, such as artificial intelligence, cooling solutions, digital tools and platforms, fab construction projects, and sustainability initiatives. These trends can help semiconductor designers overcome challenges and create new value in a dynamic and competitive market. However, these trends also pose some trade-offs and difficulties that need to be evaluated and addressed carefully. By choosing the most suitable solutions for their applications, semiconductor designers can optimize their performance and impact in various industries and domains.