Something Old, Something Borrowed

There isn’t a whole lot that’s new even in stacked die. The biggest changes will be on the business side.

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The basic rule of SoC design is that it needs to be created relatively quickly, work as planned, and that it can be manufactured at a reasonable cost and with good yield ramp. That eliminates revolutionary changes on the technology side, limits the number of new materials, and relegates the most dramatic shifts to the business.

That’s why most of the most far-reaching technology research is being done by universities rather than companies these days, and it’s why most of the stuff being proposed has been in the works for at least a decade or more. Through-silicon vias have been around for years, even though the fine details of how to drill them into CMOS or SOI with minimal impact is still being worked out. But some of the other pieces in 3D are already being used commercially by MEMS makers. And in the case of 2.5D stacking, that approach dates back to the early 1990s with system-in-package and multi-chip modules.

The business side is another matter entirely, and it will drive new technology like never before. This is where the radical changes will come into play, mostly because partnerships will have to be much more tightly integrated so that the supply chain can work as a single entity. That will require someone to take on the role of general contractor, and it’s uncertain whether that will involve a single type of company or whether that role will be more fluid. But one thing is for certain: There will be a struggle to see who can take the biggest share of the pie.

This ultimately will cause a shakeout are various points along the line, too, as companies figure out the next steps. That most likely will involve acquisitions, as struggling companies seek to cash in on a sure thing and larger companies look to gain a foothold more quickly than they could through organic growth. But it also will involve some interesting business arrangements between strong companies, no matter what their size, that can leverage either unique technology and market position and which ultimately will have no choice but to contract the number of companies with which they are working.

At that point, the next wave of competition will begin in earnest, with the goal of getting to market fastest, cheapest and with the most compelling or customized offering for particular vertical markets. If this was a sports competition, we’d now be in the planning stage of the qualifying matches, which will unfold over the next few years. After that, things should get very interesting.

–Ed Sperling