Memory, auto-specific, and MPUs to drive Semiconductors growth

Imec Semiconductors Technology

Computing has long been the growth engine for the IC industry*, but remarkable emerging applications in communication, consumer, automotive, and industrial/medical systems are fueling development of new complex, high-speed, and/or low-power ICs.  Cloud computing, 5G technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, robotics, and many other technologies are rapidly advancing and will change the way consumers live and businesses operate.

According to IC Insights, a strong, we are facing athree-year wave of double-digit growth for the IC industry based on these emerging technologies. Electronic system sales are forecast to rise 8% while the 2021 IC market is forecast to rise 12% and set a new all-time high sales level of $441.5 billion, which would surpass the previous high mark of $421.7 billion set in 2018.  A big 15% surge in semiconductor industry capital spending is forecast for this year as TSMC and Samsung are moving to expand their respective 7nm and 5nm manufacturing capacity.  TSMC also expects to ramp production of 3nm devices by the end of the year.

The researchers identified 10 top-growing IC product categories is expected to see a double-digit increase in sales, but only the top-five segments of them are forecast to grow faster than the total IC market (12% this year). DRAM and NAND flash are expected to be the two fastest-growing product segments in 2021 with 18% and 17% sales growth, respectively.  DRAM was also ranked as the fastest-growing IC segment in 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2018.  On the other hand, due to its extreme cyclicality, DRAM has also been among the poorest performing categories in 2019 when collapsing prices resulted in the DRAM market fall of -37%.

An increase in laptop, tablet, and server system sales boosted NAND revenue 24% in 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic forced a transformation in the way consumers, schools, businesses, and governments communicated and carried on with their business.  The transition to 5G technology within many of these same computing applications and smartphones is forecast to boost NAND revenue growth 17% in 2021.

Two automotive specific IC product categories, Automotive—Application-Specific Analog and Automotive—Special Purpose Logic are forecast to be among the fastest growing segments in 2021. New car sales took a hit during Covid-plagued 2020, which adversely impacted automotive IC sales. But demand for automobiles picked up in early 2021, leading to shortages of many automotive IC products.  Additional electronic systems/features, onboard connectivity, advances in autonomous driving, and the expansion of electronic vehicle sales around the world are expected to help raise the average semiconductor content per new vehicle to more than $550 in 2021.

With smartphone growth slowing in recent years, many system-on-chip MPU suppliers such as Qualcomm, Samsung, and MediaTek, have turned more of their attention to 64-bit embedded processors that integrate security features and machine-learning AI acceleration along with graphics and video capabilities for automated vehicles, self-flying drones, and IoT applications.  In a growing number of applications, embedded processors are handling machine-learning AI capabilities for autonomous operations without the need of intervention or control by humans.

The 32-bit MCU market has expanded rapidly because of increasing demands for higher levels of precision in embedded systems and the rush to the Internet of Things. Many new 32-bit MCU designs support wireless connections and Internet protocol (IP) communications. In automobiles, 32-bit MCU demand is being driven by “intelligent” onboard systems and increases in real-time sensor functions.  Meanwhile, a growing wave of 32-bit microcontrollers are being used in a wide range of consumer and industrial equipment applications. This is also driven by the fact that the cost new powerful MCUs is nearly the same as 8-bit and 16-bit devices.

*IC industry covers all the semiconductors products beside computer’s microprocessors.

proteanTecs Established an Automotive Division

Above: Gal Crmal, GM of its new Automotive Business Unit. Photo: Linkedin

proteanTecs from Haifa, Israel, expands its in-chip monitoring technology into the Automotive business segment , and recruited industry veteran Gal Carmel as GM of its new Automotive Business Unit. Carmel previously served as Chief Technology and Production Engineering of Samsung Smart Machines, building from the ground-up Samsung’s ADAS/AV technology. Prior to that, he held key roles at Mobileye (acquired by Intel in 2017 for $15.3B).

proteanTecs develops develops a technology called Universal Chip Telemetry, that enables digital systems to report on their own health and performance, throughout their entire lifecycle. During chip design, Agents are seamlessly embedded in the chip to create high coverage data on the chip’s profiling, health and performance. By applying machine learning to the data created these on-chip Agents, proteanTecs provides meaningful insights and visibility, during production and while in-field.

Automotive electronics wave of innovation

“In order to ensure the stringent safety and reliability requirements of critical functions, the automotive industry needs much deeper visibility,” said Gal Carmel. “proteanTecs is leading a transformative approach to provide predictive fault detection and fleet management tools, based on chip telemetry.” According to the company, it already serves large electronics companies in Datacenter, Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence and Communications industries.

Shai Cohen, CEO of proteanTecs, said that the investment in Automotive is a strategic movr. “The sector currently accounts for 9% of global semiconductor revenue, with electric cars set to take a global market share of 30% by 2030. Automotive electronics are in the midst of the next wave of innovation.”

Founded in 2017, the company is headquartered in Israel with offices in New JerseyCalifornia, Germany and Taiwan. In August 2020 it closed a growth equity financing round of $45M, led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT) and joined by Valor Equity Partners and Atreides Management.

Tower Semiconductor Announced ultra-fast RF Switch

Tower Semiconductor announced a new radio frequency (RF) switch technology with record figure of merit targeting the 5G and high-performance RF switch markets. The company is engaged with multiple customers and partners to bring this technology to market for next-generation products.

This new switch technology demonstrates a record RF device figure of merit: On/Off transition times (Ron Coff) shorter than 10 femtoseconds vs. 70-100 femtoseconds in use today for the most advanced applications. The switch performs over a wide range of frequencies spanning MHz to mmWave, including the frequency bands discussed for 5G.

The switch is also nonvolatile so consumes no energy when in the on-state or off-state, making it attractive for IoT, and other power and battery sensitive applications. Tower has demonstrated the versatility of this patented technology by integrating it with other process platforms such as SiGe BiCMOS and Power CMOS.

Tower Semiconductor will be offering multi-project wafer runs (MPWs) in 2021 for select customers. This model enables new customers to experience the technology in lower costs, by sharing the wafer in production with other interested parties. The new RF switch will be presented at IMS 2020 (International Microwave Symposium).

The abstract of Tower Semiconductor’s presentation in IMS 2020 reveals more details about the new technology: Two different sized layouts of four-terminal phase-change material (PCM) RF switches fabricated in a 200 mm silicon high volume manufacturing environment. Both layouts have with a record high FCO of 25 THz. Layout-A has a RON*C_OFF values of 6.2 fs, and Layout-B has a RON*C_OFF values of 6.3 fs.

Both layouts show minimal changes to RON or actuation voltage when cycled 10 million times. Also, a Layout-A device was cycled 1 billion times, demonstrating the ability of this RF switch to be used in high endurance applications.

Intel may Outsource 7-nm Production

Above: Bob Swan, Intel CEO. “We have invested in contingency plans “

Intel took the market by surprise when it revealed last week a plan to intensify outsource production and to move some of its future 7-nanometer devices production to third parties. Immediately following the announcement, Intel’s shares in NASDAQ lost 16%. In fact, Intel published a very good Q2 2020 results: Revenues of $19.7 billion, compared to $16.6 billion last year. It also expects annual revenues of $75 billion in 2020, compared to $72 billion in 2019.

But Intel’s production difficulties overshadowed every thing else. Intel’s, CEO Bob Swan, published a prepared remarks about the issue: “We are seeing an approximate six-month shift in our 7nm-based CPU product timing relative to prior expectations. Our 7nm process is now trending approximately twelve months behind our internal target. We have identified a defect mode in our 7nm process that resulted in yield degradation.”

“Contingency Plan” means Outsourcing Production

“We’ve root-caused the issue and believe there are no fundamental roadblocks, but we have also invested in contingency plans to hedge against further schedule uncertainty.” Trey Campbell, Director of Investor Relations, gave a context during the earning call: “Our priorities in the ideal world is leadership products on our process technology. But the focus will be leadership products. So to the extent that we need to view somebody else’s process technology, and we call those contingency plans, we will be prepared to do that.”

In an answer to an analyst in the call, Swan explained that if the company decide to continue to do all its production inside, it will invest “a little more (in) 10-nanometer and less (in) 7-nanometer. In the event we decide that we’re going to leverage third-party foundries more effectively, we would have a little more 10 and a lot less seven. In the event we’re not there and there’s a better alternative, be prepared to take advantage of it.”

The conclusion is shocking: Intel does not lead the process race anymore, and it is also does not believe in its ability to provide full scale 7 nm production services for its own road map. In this case it has no other option but to outsource TSMC and Samsung, the global leaders in 7 nm process.

Nvidia and Mellanox built a Supercomputer in just a Month

Photo above: Mellanox’ AI platform protects supercomputers from from hacking and inappropriate use

In a first joint announcement by Nvidia and Mellanox, the two companies announced a reference design for the rapid building of supercomputers, and a new cyber protection platform for supercomputers. Mellanox has expanded its offering of Unified Fabric Manager (UFM) products, adding to it a new appliance called UFM Cyber-AI Platform.

It provides cyber protection to supercomputers and big data centers, using an artificial intelligence software that studies the behavior characteristics of the computing systems, to identify malfunctions and detects abnormal activity that implies on hacking and unauthorized activity.

Originally, UFM technology was developed a decade ago by Mellanox in order to manage InfiniBand-based communications systems by providing network telemetry data, monitoring the activity of all the related devices, and managing the software updates across the network’s components.

The new solution comes both as a software package or as a complete appliance based on Nvidia’s dedicated server. It is focused on characterizing computer operation and identifying unusual activity. According to Nvidia and Mellanox, the system significantly reduces the data center’s downtime, whose damages are estimated to reach $300,000 per hour.

Supercomputers are open and unprotected platforms

According to Mellanox’s VP of Marketing, Gil Shainer, the integration of Mellanox’s InfiniBand with Nvidia’s GPU changes the rules of the game in the supercomputer market, bringing to it unprecedented cyber security and preventative maintenance capabilities. Shainer: “Supercomputers are managed differently from organizational computer centers. Usually it is an open platform that need to provide easy access to many researchers around the world.”

To illustrate the dilemma he recalled an event that took place several years ago at an American university. “The administrator of the computers center told me how they caught a student using a computer for crypto mining. The suspicion emerged when they found out that the computer’s power consumption was not declining during the annual vacation, a period of time in which the computer usually is not active. Our solution allows you to detect such a situation right away – and not have to wait for your computer’s power bill.”

Reference Design for the Rapid Construction of Supercomputer

Alongside the joint announcement, Nvidia unveiled a new supercomputer called Selene (photo above), which is considered the strongest industrial supercomputer in the United States, with peak performance of 27.5 petaflops. The computer is based on the new A100-model GPU processors announced this week, and was built for internal research conducted in Nvidia. During a press briefing last week, Shainer revealed that the new computer was built in just one month, a record-breaking time for the construction of a supercomputer.

Shainer: “The ability to build a supercomputer in a month is based on expertise in communication and expertise in processors. We have developed a reference design that allows anyone to build a supercomputer, based on ready made blocks of Nvidia’s processors and Mellanox’s communication. Because the processors are fully compatible with the communications cards, the computer can be set up in no time. In fact, we have jointly developed a reference design that allows for the construction of computers of any size – not just supercomputers.”

BMW-Mercedes Break up is bad news for Intel/Mobileye

Photo above: BMW impression of highway autonomous driving

Less than a year since the German Automotive giants BMW Group and Mercedes-Benz AG agreed to work together on a joint development program of next-generation technologies for driver assistance systems and automated driving, they decided to halt the cooperation and to take different paths. Last week they announced that they are putting their cooperation in automated driving “temporarily on hold”.

The original agreement raised many expectations: On July 2019, the two parties announced an agreement for a long-term strategic cooperation, which will include joint development of driver assistance systems, automated driving on highways and automated parking (SAE Level 4). They planned to bring together more than 1,200 specialists from both companies, often in mixed teams, to develop a scalable architecture for driver assistance systems, including sensors, as well as a joint data centre for data storage, administration and processing, and functions and software.

Intel/BMW vs Mercedes/NVIDIA

For Intel and Mobileye (owned by Intel) it was a great opportunity: They both have a long and deep cooperation with BMW Group in all aspects of Autonomous Driving, and the agreement could secure their dominant position in the German car industry. “We have systematically further developed our technology and scalable platform with partners like Intel, Mobileye, FCA and Ansys,” said Klaus Fröhlich, member of the Board of Management of BMW. “Our current technology, with extremely powerful sensors and computing power, puts us in an excellent position.”

But those hopes were short lived: “Digitalization is a major strategic pillar for Mercedes-Benz. To prepare for the future challenges of a rapidly changing environment, we are currently also sounding out other possibilities with partners outside the automotive sector,” said Markus Schäfer, Board Member of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz.

And it turned out that one of these “partners” is NVIDIA – a bitter competitor of Intel and Mobileye. On Tuesday, June 23, they announced a cooperation to create a revolutionary in-vehicle computing system and AI computing infrastructure. Starting in 2024, this will be rolled out across the fleet of next-generation Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

The new software-defined architecture will be built on the NVIDIA DRIVE platform and will be standard in Mercedes-Benz’s next-generation fleet. But there is a twist: NVIDIA and Mercedes-Benz will jointly develop the AI and automated vehicle applications for SAE level 2 and 3 – far below the ambitious goal of the original BMW/Mercedes coalition.

Weebit Nano raised $4.5 million to commercialize ReRAM technology

Hod Hasharon (near Tel Aviv)-based Weebit Nano, which is developing a new type of non-volatile ReRAM technology, has raised $4.5 US million through a private allotment of shares on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX). At the moment, the company is trying to raise an additional $0.5 AUD million through a public offering. Weebit Nano’s CEO, Coby Hanoch, told Techtime that this financial round ,”Will allow us to move towards commercialization, and hopefully, within a year we’ll already be engaging in serious interactions with potential customers.”

According to the report supplied by the company to the ASX, about half of the money raised will be allocated for the development of a dedicated module for embedded systems, the company’s first target market for its ReRAM technology. “Our technology has already been proven and tested by customers. We are now developing a specific module of the memory, in order to make it suitable for the embedded systems market.”

The Best of all Possible Worlds

Approximately 20% of the amount will be allocated for the development of a component called ‘Selector’, which is designed to minimize leakage currents between the memory cells, and about 15% for transferring the technology for production at standard Fab manufacturing facilities. Weebit Nano is developing a new Resistive Random Access Memory (ReRAM), based on the use of materials that change their electrical resistance in response to electrical voltage, thus “remembering” the voltage levels after they are disconnected from the power source.

It combines the non-volatility of flash memory with the fast, low-power, and long life cycle of the volatile DRAM memory technologies. The company estimates that its prototype is 1,000 times faster and uses 1,000 times less power than flash memory, traits which make him perfect candidate for IoT, artificial intelligence, information centers and more.

Lately, Weebit Nano announced first commercial collaborations, both with the Chinese semiconductors companies, XTX and SiEn. Together, they will examine the integration of the Weebit Nano’s memory component into their’ products. “China is the largest chip consumer in the world, and is determined to build an independent semiconductors industry,” said Hanoch.