Semiconductors Beyond Nanometers

Focusing solely on the smallest feature size fails to capture the industry’s full complexity.


In today’s world, semiconductors are essential components of our everyday lives and the backbone of our economies. From the devices we use to communicate to the machines that power our factories, semiconductors are the building blocks that enable digitalization and decarbonization. However, public and policy debates about semiconductors often focus solely on their smallest feature size, measured in nanometers, which fails to capture the full complexity and importance of these high-tech goods.

At Infineon, we have developed a simple yet powerful way to understand semiconductors – our “Semiconductor Tree.” This intuitive structure provides a framework for discussing the different branches of the semiconductor industry, from power semiconductors to memory chips and microcontrollers. By exploring each branch of the tree, we can gain a better understanding of the unique properties and specialized industries that each one represents.

Fig. 1: Semiconductor tree.

First transistor (1947)

At the core of the semiconductor industry is the transistor switch, which was first demonstrated in 1947 by a team of researchers at AT&T Bell Labs. Since then, we have seen an exponential miniaturization roadmap, which has led to microprocessors that contain billions of transistors. However, this race to shrink transistors and integrate them as densely as possible into an Integrated Circuit (IC) requires extreme ultraviolet light and the most complex machines ever manufactured by mankind.

Fig. 2: A replica of the first transistor. (Source: WHMC)

Power semiconductors

Notably, one branch of the semiconductor industry has focused on optimizing the individual transistor for faster switching and/or switching of ever-higher electrical power. These are known as power semiconductors and are becoming increasingly important as societies and economies move towards electrification as a means to decarbonize. Power semiconductors require sophisticated control of the underlying technologies and processes, and leading companies often control much of the value chain in-house.

Infineon’s power semiconductor business is an example of an Integrated Device Manufacturer (IDM), with major manufacturing sites in Germany, Austria, and Malaysia.

Memory, microcontrollers/microprocessors, and analog/mixed-signal

Another path to optimizing the transistor was to standardize it as much as possible, shrink it, and pack it as densely as possible. This gave rise to other branches in the semiconductor tree, including memory, microcontrollers, and microprocessors. Each of these branches has its unique properties, requirements, and industries. For instance, memory semiconductors allow storage and read-out of information in the form of electrical signals.

Microcontrollers, on the other hand, control everyday devices like washing machines, cars, airplanes, and industrial control systems. Analog/mixed-signal semiconductors act as the interface between our real world and the digital world, processing analog electrical signals like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or radar chips for autonomously driving cars. Since analog signal processing doesn’t follow the same shrink path as analog, manufacturing analog/mixed signal today is often done at a sweet spot of 130-90nm.

Final thoughts

The world of semiconductors is vast and diversified, and it is crucial to have a more nuanced understanding of the importance and development of the respective industries. Semiconductors are essential building blocks for our personal lives, modern societies, and economies, and their importance will only grow as we continue to digitize and decarbonize.

As such, it is no surprise that semiconductors are at the center of global politics. By understanding the complexity and importance of semiconductors, we can have more precise discussions about their role in shaping our world.

Read a more detailed version of the topic here.

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