5 Takeaways from IEDM

IEDM features next-gen technologies. What else is interesting?


As usual, the recent IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) was a busy week. The event, which took place in San Francisco, featured a plethora of subjects, such as next-generation transistors and memories.

The event also included tracks on non-traditional approaches like quantum and neuromorphic computing. And then, there were sessions on power semis and others.

In no particular order, here are my five takeaways from IEDM:

Spec debates
Once upon a time, chipmakers would roll out a new process. At the same, they provided the specs and features in excruciating detail.

Those days are long gone. In recent times, Intel, Samsung and TSMC separately rolled out their 10nm finFET processes. At IEDM, TSMC presented a paper on 7nm, which gave a sneak preview of the company’s upcoming 7nm rollout.

Generally, the companies provide the numbers in terms of how the power and performance levels compare with the previous technology. What they don’t provide anymore are the basic specs or features of the process itself. The details are sketchy in terms of providing the fin specs, channel materials, among others.

Over time, chipmakers have been reluctant to provide many details and for good reason. They don’t want to give away too many secrets to their competitors.

The lack of details leaves many frustrated, however. Fortunately, the reverse engineering houses like TechInsights eventually get their hands on these chips and image the devices on the nano scale.

But that could take weeks, if not months. Until then, many speculate and debate over the specs. In fact, the debates among bloggers over the specs can get rather heated. The debates are sometimes more interesting than the specs themselves.

Waiting for SPIE
One of the exceptions to the rule at IEDM was a paper from GlobalFoundries, IBM and Samsung. The companies presented a 7nm finFET using extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography.

The paper provided several specs. But it’s hard to say if this is a paper or an eventual commercial process.

Regardless, the paper prompted me to think about the upcoming SPIE Advanced Lithography conference in February. At the event, the industry hopes to hear more about the progress of EUV. Many hope for a new breakthrough or two. The industry is looking for improvements in the power source. It would also like to see data of an EUV scanner in real pilot production.

Many aren’t getting their hopes up, however. That way, they aren’t going to be disappointed by the actual presentations at SPIE.

3D NAND battle
At IEDM, Samsung gave a presentation on NAND. It provided just a few details about its 3D NAND roadmap.

Still, it’s becoming clear that 3D NAND will become a slugfest in 2017, as several vendors are expected to ramp up the technology. For some time, Samsung has been shipping a 48-layer 3D NAND chip. According to Pacific Crest Securities, Samsung plans to start sampling its 64-layer chip in December, with production starting in the first quarter of 2017.

Western Digital is also ramping up 64-layer parts. Micron and SK Hynix are working on similar devices.

It appears that 3D NAND customers will have plenty of options in 2017. But the transition from planar to 3D NAND could be a bumpy ride. 3D NAND is a new technology. The yields remain an issue. And with any new technology, the ramps don’t always go as planned.

What’s the next killer app?
While IEDM was taking place, Pacific Crest Securities released a new research note on the progress of Apple’s new iPhone7 smartphone. The iPhone 7 cycle “is progressing as expected,” according to the firm. It is “better than the 6s cycle, but far from inspiring.”

As a result, Pacific Crest reduced its shipment forecast for the iPhone 7. Shipments in the first fiscal quarter are expected to reach 77 million units, down from the original projection of 78 million, according to the firm. Shipments in the second fiscal quarter are expected to reach 55 million units, down from the original projection of 58 million, according to the firm.

Clearly, the smartphone is maturing and slowing. So what’s the next killer app?

At IEDM, there was an interesting panel that attempted to address those and other issues. Based on the panelists, there are a new wave of applications on the horizon. But it’s unclear which one will have the volumes or dollar value as the smartphone.

The automotive market is a key driver, but it is still a tiny part of the overall IC business. It’s hard to believe that autonomous driving technology will drive IC growth in the near term. Medical is a fascinating market. But it’s also a fragmented market will smaller volumes.

Another market, machine learning, is not new. The industry has been using this technology for years. The current deep learning computer systems from Google and others use today’s graphics processing units (GPUs).

For years, the industry has been developing specialized hardware or neural network chips to advance machine learning. The progress is slow at best for these devices. Home automation is also interesting. Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home are fueling the so-called smart speaker market. This technology is still in its infancy.

The same goes for virtual reality. And it will take years before robots enter the home market in a big way. Perhaps 5G wireless networks are the next killer app. Don’t expect that to hit the airwaves in a major way until after 2020, however.

Do we need a new Sematech?
At IEDM, Imec and Leti hosted separate events. Both European organizations should be commended. They provide invaluable R&D and technical resources for the semiconductor and other industries.

What’s missing is a similar R&D organization in the United States. Granted, the U.S. has the Albany Nanotech, SRC and other organizations. These groups do excellent work, but they aren’t exactly like full-scale R&D organizations like Imec and Leti.

Many wonder if the U.S. needs to restart an organization like Sematech, which was basically folded. Perhaps the new U.S. administration would consider it. Perhaps we don’t need it at all. Any thoughts out there?

Related Stories
How To Make 3D NAND
Foundries progress with complex combination of high-aspect ratio etch, metal deposition and string stacking.
7nm Market Heats Up
GlobalFoundries rolls out 7nm finFET technology.


Jayna Sheats says:

I have long thought that the U.S. places itself at a huge disadvantage by not having R&D/commercialization organizations like Leti, Fraunhofer, etc., which do an immense amount of work in connecting basic research with the marketplace. Companies have disbanded such R&D almost entirely, and academia is not the place for it. But it seems to be politically unpalatable here to have anything like an “industrial policy”.

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