BY CHARLES D. WINSTON
Since the early 1990s people have been excited about a new generation of consumer electronics — a true “anything, anytime, anywhere” generation that would enable instant communications through a wide range of devices.
Well, what happened? Where is it? Why aren't we there yet?
The answers lie in the economics of the electronics industry. While most of the technology to produce these new devices is available, it hasn't been available in a way that would make the numbers work for manufacturers and consumers through high-volume, high-yield, high-reliability production processes.
The obstacles are substantial, but they are not insurmountable. They include human interface and power management issues, as well as the need for a higher-speed wireless infrastructure. And most significantly for our industry, they include packaging constraints that will have to be dealt with en route to further integrate the substrate, silicon and passive components.
Packaging History Lessons
Some historical perspective may be useful. We continue benefiting today from packaging technology developed during the 1980s, when mainframe computer makers used their in-house R&D expertise to make some amazing leaps in technology. The industry's collective accomplishments include direct chip attach, C4, BGAs, high-density PCB interconnect, microvias, additive copper processes, copper metallization on ICs, LTCC processes and more. These technologies and their derivatives have been crucial to the development of today's consumer electronics products.
Unfortunately, single-company R&D budgets that were available in the expensive world of mainframe computers have not been achieved in the consumer electronics segment. Few consumer electronics suppliers have been large enough to sustain the development activity needed to incorporate advanced functionality into low-cost consumer applications.
The good news is that this picture may be changing. As large IC players begin focusing on the silicon revenue opportunities associated with a broad range of consumer electronics, they will start committing the R&D investment needed to get past the necessary hurdles. Size does matter — the industry needs a few juggernauts on the consumer electronics side akin to those it had in the mainframe business. And it needs partnerships between key equipment suppliers, suppliers of end product to the consumer, and a select group of companies that control the high-margin silicon, the interconnect design and the packaging design.
Near Silicon Area Packaging
This is the point where consumer electronics needs the kind of boost that the mainframe computer companies provided back in the '80s. Near silicon area means WLCSP, COB and mainstream flip chip technology. It means HDI and ultra-fine pitch … it means microvias … it means embedded passives … it means stacking ICs and silicon via drilling … it means more sophistication and integration in the silicon to reduce passives. It means that bare die needs to become a standard part of the product offering of semiconductor suppliers … that we have cost-effective test solutions for bare die in singulated form … that back-end merchant suppliers can offer redistribution layering for IC interconnect.
The silicon really is the easy part to deal with. It is the concentration of the silicon in a given area of the consumer product and the supporting passives that are preventing us from achieving another round of significant miniaturization in electronics.
More and more capability can be built into the silicon, when we need it, as we need it. But the packaging remains the limitation. Until we further improve the integration of the substrate, silicon and passives, and we approach packaging that is chip scale in area and very thin, we will face significant limitations in meeting the expected size and power requirements of these new products.
Are we ready? Can we do it?
We've been waiting for more than a decade for flip chip and near chip scale packaging (CSP) to become a reality. We've all seen the “hockey stick” forecasts from the industry experts regarding CSP and bare die utilization growth.
The current uncertain economic environment makes R&D dollars precious, but it always has been that way. As an industry with a long history of cyclic behavior, we should be able to look beyond the current cycle and take appropriate action. Whether we're looking for a small dose of disruptive technologies or a large dose of incremental improvements, it is time for all of us to rise to the challenge and start implementing the pieces of next-generation electronics.
Charles D. Winston, president and CEO, may be contacted at GSI Lumonics Inc., 39 Manning Rd., Billerica, MA 01821; (978) 439-5511; Web site: www.gsilumonics.com.