Tuesday, July 19, 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 business: chip shortages, the CHIPS Act, our dependence on Taiwan and TSMC, China, and so forth.

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

The Semiconductor Ecosystem

We’re seeing the digital transformation of every thing. Semiconductors – chips that course of digital data — are in virtually every thing: computer systems, automobiles, residence home equipment, medical tools, and so forth. Semiconductor firms will promote $600 billion price of chips this yr.

Wanting on the determine under, the business appears fairly easy. Corporations within the semiconductor ecosystem make chips (the triangle on the left) and promote them to firms and authorities companies (on the appropriate). These firms and authorities companies then design the chips into programs and units (e.g. iPhones, PCs, airplanes, cloud computing, and so forth.), and promote them to shoppers, companies, and governments. The income of merchandise that comprise chips is price tens of trillions of {dollars}.

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

When you have been in a position to look inside the straightforward triangle representing the semiconductor business, as an alternative of a single firm making chips, you’d discover an business with lots of of firms, all depending on one another. Taken as an entire it’s fairly overwhelming, so let’s describe one a part of the ecosystem at a time.  (Warning –  it is a simplified view of a really complicated business.)

Semiconductor Trade Segments

The semiconductor business has seven various kinds of firms. Every of those distinct business segments feeds its assets up the worth chain to the following till lastly a chip manufacturing unit (a “Fab”) has all of the designs, tools, and supplies essential to manufacture a chip. Taken from the underside up these semiconductor business 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 Corporations
  6. Built-in System Producers (IDMs)
  7. Chip Foundries
  8. Outsourced Semiconductor Meeting and Check (OSAT)

The next sections under present extra element about every of those eight semiconductor business segments.

Chip Mental Property (IP) Cores

  • The design of a chip could also be owned by a single firm, or…
  • Some firms license their chip designs – as software program constructing blocks, referred to as IP Cores – for extensive use
  • There are over 150 firms 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 business is dominated by three U.S. distributors – Cadence, Mentor (now a part of Siemens) and Synopsys
  • It takes a big engineering staff 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.)

  • At present, as logic chips proceed to turn into extra complicated, all Digital Design Automation firms are starting to insert Synthetic Intelligence aids to automate and velocity up the method

Specialised Supplies and Chemical compounds

To this point 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 unit referred to as a “fab.” The factories that make chips want to purchase specialised supplies and chemical compounds:

  • 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 listing goes on…)
  • Fluids (photoresists, high coats, CMP slurries)
  • Photomasks
  • Wafer dealing with tools, dicing
  • RF Turbines

Wafer Fab Gear (WFE) Make the Chips

  • These machines bodily manufacture the chips
  • 5 firms dominate the business – Utilized Supplies, KLA, LAM, Tokyo Electron and ASML
  • These are a number 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 in a while

 “Fabless” Chip Corporations

  • Methods firms (Apple, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Amazon, Fb, and so forth.) 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 could use the chips solely in their very own units e.g. Apple, Google, Amazon ….
  • Or they could promote the chips to everybody e.g. AMD, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Broadcom…
  • They don’t personal Wafer Fab Gear or use specialised supplies or chemical compounds
  • They do use Chip IP and Digital Design Software program to design the chips

Built-in System Producers (IDMs)

  • Built-in System 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 compounds
  • The common price 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 tools from quite a lot of producers
    • Wafer Fab Gear and specialised supplies and chemical compounds
  • They design distinctive processes utilizing this tools to make the chips
  • However they don’t design chips
  • TSMC in Taiwan is the chief in logic, Samsung is second
  • Different fabs specialise in making chips for analog, energy, rf, shows, safe army, and so forth.
  • It prices $20 billon to construct a brand new era chip (3nm) fabrication plant


  • Fabs are quick for fabrication crops – the manufacturing unit that makes chips
  • Built-in System 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 applicable 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 compounds, gases
  4. The printing plant buys printing equipment, presses, binders, trimmers. The fab buys wafer fab tools, 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 hundreds of thousands of copies of the identical e book. The plant seems hundreds of thousands of copies of the identical chip

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

Outsourced Semiconductor Meeting and Check (OSAT)

  • Corporations that package deal and take a look at chips made by foundries and IDMs
  • OSAT firms take the wafer made by foundries, cube (reduce) them up into particular person chips, take a look at them after which package deal them and ship them to the shopper


Fab Points

  • As chips have turn into denser (with trillions of transistors on a single wafer) the price of constructing fabs have skyrocketed – now >$10 billion for one chip manufacturing unit
  • One purpose is that the price of the tools 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 complicated. 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 tools
  • The multi-billion-dollar price of staying at the vanguard has meant most firms have dropped out. In 2001 there have been 17 firms making probably the most superior chips.  At present there are solely two – Samsung in Korea and TSMC in Taiwan.
    • Provided that China believes Taiwan is a province of China this might be problematic for the West.

What’s Subsequent – Know-how

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

  • As an alternative of creating a single processor do all of the work, logic chip designers have put a number of specialised processors inside a chip
  • Reminiscence chips at the moment are made denser by stacking them 100+ layers excessive
  • As chips are getting extra complicated to design, which suggests bigger design groups, and longer time to market, Digital Design Automation firms are embedding synthetic intelligence to automate components of the design course of
  • Wafer tools producers are designing new tools 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 System 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 personal design instruments and fabs. At present, it’s an obstacle.

  • Foundries have economies of scale and standardization. Relatively than having to invent all of it themselves, they’ll make the most of the whole 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 effectively show to be like controlling the oil provide within the twentieth. The nation that controls this manufacturing can throttle the army and financial energy of others.

  • Guaranteeing a gentle provide of chips has turn into a nationwide precedence. (China’s largest import by $’s are semiconductors – bigger than oil)
  • At present, 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 tools and digital design automation software program
  • Over the previous few many years the U.S. moved most of its fabs to Asia. At present we’re incentivizing bringing fabs and chip manufacturing again to the U.S.

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



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