Tuesday, September 27, 2022
HomeStartupSteve Clean The Semiconductor Ecosystem – Defined

Steve Clean The Semiconductor Ecosystem – Defined

The final yr has seen a ton written in regards to the semiconductor trade: chip shortages, the CHIPS Act, our dependence on Taiwan and TSMC, China, and many others.

However regardless of all this speak about chips and semiconductors, few perceive how the trade is structured. I’ve discovered one of the simplest ways to know one thing sophisticated is to diagram it out, step-by-step. So right here’s a fast pictorial tutorial on how the trade works.

The Semiconductor Ecosystem

We’re seeing the digital transformation of all the things. Semiconductors – chips that course of digital data — are in nearly all the things: computer systems, automobiles, residence home equipment, medical gear, and many others. Semiconductor corporations will promote $600 billion price of chips this yr.

Trying on the determine under, the trade appears fairly easy. Firms within the semiconductor ecosystem make chips (the triangle on the left) and promote them to corporations and authorities businesses (on the suitable). These corporations and authorities businesses then design the chips into methods and units (e.g. iPhones, PCs, airplanes, cloud computing, and many others.), and promote them to customers, companies, and governments. The income of merchandise that comprise chips is price tens of trillions of {dollars}.

But, given how massive it’s, the trade stays a thriller to most.  Should you do consider the semiconductor trade in any respect, it’s possible you’ll image staff in bunny fits in a fab clear room (the chip manufacturing facility) holding a 12” wafer. But it’s a enterprise that manipulates supplies an atom at a time and its factories value 10s of billions of {dollars} to construct.  (By the way in which, that wafer has two trillion transistors on it.)

Should you have been capable of look inside the easy triangle representing the semiconductor trade, as an alternative of a single firm making chips, you’d discover an trade with a whole lot of corporations, all depending on one another. Taken as a complete it’s fairly overwhelming, so let’s describe one a part of the ecosystem at a time.  (Warning –  this can be a simplified view of a really advanced trade.)

Semiconductor Trade Segments

The semiconductor trade has seven several types of corporations. Every of those distinct trade segments feeds its sources up the worth chain to the subsequent till lastly a chip manufacturing facility (a “Fab”) has all of the designs, gear, and supplies essential to manufacture a chip. Taken from the underside up these semiconductor trade segments are:

  1. Chip Mental Property (IP) Cores
  2. Digital Design Automation (EDA) Instruments
  3. Specialised Supplies
  4. Wafer Fab Gear (WFE)
  5. “Fabless” Chip Firms
  6. Built-in Gadget Producers (IDMs)
  7. Chip Foundries

The next sections under present extra element about every of those seven semiconductor trade segments.

Chip Mental Property (IP) Cores

  • The design of a chip could also be owned by a single firm, or…
  • Some corporations license their chip designs – as software program constructing blocks, known as IP Cores – for huge use
  • There are over 150 corporations that promote chip IP Cores
  • For instance, Apple licenses IP Cores from ARM as a constructing block of their microprocessors of their iPhones and Computer systems

Digital Design Automation (EDA) Instruments

  • Engineers design chips (including their very own designs on high of any IP cores they’ve purchased) utilizing specialised Digital Design Automation (EDA) software program
  • The trade is dominated by three U.S. distributors – Cadence, Mentor (now a part of Siemens) and Synopsys
  • It takes a big engineering workforce utilizing these EDA instruments 2-3 years to design a posh logic chip like a microprocessor used inside a cellphone, pc or server. (See the determine of the design course of under.)

  • Immediately, as logic chips proceed to develop into extra advanced, all Digital Design Automation corporations are starting to insert Synthetic Intelligence aids to automate and pace up the method

Specialised Supplies and Chemical compounds

Thus far our chip remains to be in software program. However to show it into one thing tangible we’re going to should bodily produce it in a chip manufacturing facility known as a “fab.” The factories that make chips want to purchase specialised supplies and chemical substances:

  • Silicon wafers – and to make these they want crystal rising furnaces
  • Over 100 Gases are used – bulk gases (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, argon, helium), and different unique/poisonous gases (fluorine, nitrogen trifluoride, arsine, phosphine, boron trifluoride, diborane, silane, and the record goes on…)
  • Fluids (photoresists, high coats, CMP slurries)
  • Photomasks
  • Wafer dealing with gear, dicing
  • RF Turbines

Wafer Fab Gear (WFE) Make the Chips

  • These machines bodily manufacture the chips
  • 5 corporations dominate the trade – Utilized Supplies, KLA, LAM, Tokyo Electron and ASML
  • These are a few of the most complex (and costly) machines on Earth. They take a slice of an ingot of silicon and manipulate its atoms on and under its floor
  • We’ll clarify how these machines are used a bit afterward

 “Fabless” Chip Firms

  • Methods corporations (Apple, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Amazon, Fb, and many others.) that beforehand used off-the-shelf chips now design their very own chips.
  • They create chip designs (utilizing IP Cores and their very own designs) and ship the designs to “foundries” which have “fabs” that manufacture them
  • They might use the chips completely in their very own units e.g. Apple, Google, Amazon ….
  • Or they might promote the chips to everybody e.g. AMD, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Broadcom…
  • They don’t personal Wafer Fab Gear or use specialised supplies or chemical substances
  • They do use Chip IP and Digital Design Software program to design the chips

Built-in Gadget Producers (IDMs)

  • Built-in Gadget Producers (IDMs) design, manufacture (in their very own fabs), and promote their very own chips
  • They’ve their very own “fabs” however can also use foundries
    • They use Chip IP and Digital Design Software program to design their chips
    • They purchase Wafer Fab Gear and use specialised supplies and chemical substances
  • The typical value of taping out a brand new modern chip (3nm) is now $500 million

 Chip Foundries

  • Foundries make chips for others of their “fabs”
  • They purchase and combine gear from quite a lot of producers
    • Wafer Fab Gear and specialised supplies and chemical substances
  • They design distinctive processes utilizing this gear to make the chips
  • However they don’t design chips
  • TSMC in Taiwan is the chief in logic, Samsung is second
  • Different fabs focus on making chips for analog, energy, rf, shows, safe navy, and many others.
  • It prices $20 billon to construct a brand new technology chip (3nm) fabrication plant


  • Fabs are brief for fabrication vegetation – the manufacturing facility that makes chips
  • Built-in Gadget Producers (IDMs) and Foundries each have fabs. The one distinction is whether or not they make chips for others to make use of or promote or make them for themselves to promote.
  • Consider a Fab as analogous to a e book printing plant (see determine under)
  1. Simply as an writer writes a e book utilizing a phrase processor, an engineer designs a chip utilizing digital design automation instruments
  2. An writer contracts with a writer who specializes of their style after which sends the textual content to a printing plant. An engineer selects a fab acceptable for his or her kind of chip (reminiscence, logic, RF, analog)
  3. The printing plant buys paper and ink. A fab buys uncooked supplies; silicon, chemical substances, gases
  4. The printing plant buys printing equipment, presses, binders, trimmers. The fab buys wafer fab gear, etchers, deposition, lithography, testers, packaging
  5. The printing course of for a e book makes use of offset lithography, filming, stripping, blueprints, plate making, binding and trimming. Chips are manufactured in a sophisticated course of manipulating atoms utilizing etchers, deposition, lithography. Consider it as an atomic degree offset printing. The wafers are then reduce up and the chips are packaged
  6. The plant seems tens of millions of copies of the identical e book. The plant seems tens of millions of copies of the identical chip

Whereas this sounds easy, it’s not. Chips are most likely essentially the most sophisticated merchandise ever manufactured.  The diagram under is a simplified model of the 1000+ steps it takes to make a chip.

Fab Points

  • As chips have develop into denser (with trillions of transistors on a single wafer) the price of constructing fabs have skyrocketed – now >$10 billion for one chip manufacturing facility
  • One purpose is that the price of the gear wanted to make the chips has skyrocketed
    • Only one superior lithography machine from ASML, a Dutch firm, prices $150 million
    • There are ~500+ machines in a fab (not all as costly as ASML)
    • The fab constructing is extremely advanced. The clear room the place the chips are made is simply the tip of the iceberg of a posh set of plumbing feeding gases, energy, liquids all on the proper time and temperature into the wafer fab gear
  • The multi-billion-dollar value of staying at the forefront has meant most corporations have dropped out. In 2001 there have been 17 corporations making essentially the most superior chips.  Immediately there are solely two – Samsung in Korea and TSMC in Taiwan.
    • Provided that China believes Taiwan is a province of China this may very well be problematic for the West.

What’s Subsequent – Know-how

It’s getting a lot tougher to construct chips which are denser, quicker, and use much less energy, so what’s subsequent?

  • As a substitute of creating a single processor do all of the work, logic chip designers have put a number of specialised processors within a chip
  • Reminiscence chips are actually made denser by stacking them 100+ layers excessive
  • As chips are getting extra advanced to design, which suggests bigger design groups, and longer time to market, Digital Design Automation corporations are embedding synthetic intelligence to automate elements of the design course of
  • Wafer gear producers are designing new gear to assist fabs make chips with decrease energy, higher efficiency, optimum area-to-cost, and quicker time to market

What’s Subsequent – Enterprise

The enterprise mannequin of Built-in Gadget Producers (IDMs) like Intel is quickly altering. Up to now there was an enormous aggressive benefit in being vertically built-in i.e. having your individual design instruments and fabs. Immediately, it’s an obstacle.

  • Foundries have economies of scale and standardization. Slightly than having to invent all of it themselves, they will make the most of your entire stack of innovation within the ecosystem. And simply concentrate on manufacturing
  • AMD has confirmed that it’s potential to shift from an IDM to a fabless foundry mannequin. Intel is making an attempt. They’re going to use TSMC as a foundry for their very own chips in addition to arrange their very own foundry

What’s Subsequent – Geopolitics

Controlling superior chip manufacturing within the twenty first century might nicely show to be like controlling the oil provide within the twentieth. The nation that controls this manufacturing can throttle the navy and financial energy of others.

  • Making certain a gradual provide of chips has develop into a nationwide precedence. (China’s largest import by $’s are semiconductors – bigger than oil)
  • Immediately, each the U.S. and China are quickly making an attempt to decouple their semiconductor ecosystems from one another; China is pouring $100+ billion of presidency incentives in constructing Chinese language fabs, whereas concurrently making an attempt to create indigenous provides of wafer fab gear and digital design automation software program
  • Over the previous couple of many years the U.S. moved most of its fabs to Asia. Immediately we’re incentivizing bringing fabs and chip manufacturing again to the U.S.

An trade that beforehand was solely of curiosity to technologists is now one of many largest items in nice energy competitors.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments