Semiconductor R&D: A state of transition

Several years ago when the challenges to 450mm wafer processing, EUV development and novel transistor designs were first being discussed, SEMI commissioned a study that predicted the industry could face an R&D funding gap that could exceed $9 billion if current technology and economic trends continue. At the time, SEMI issued a statement saying the industry was at a “crossroads” and “without significant attention to the R&D gap, the semiconductor equipment and materials industry will not be able to afford to keep up with Moore’s Law.”

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Much has happened since that report was issued: 450mm development was delayed, but now is ramping at G450C; Intel, Samsung and TSMC have invested over one billion dollars in ASML; cost targets have been missed at 28nm; and 3D-ICs have emerged as an alternative development path for leading-edge chip solutions.  But the R&D challenges remain.   The industry has responded in unexpected and unique ways, including new funding models, new consortia programs, increasing joint development agreements, and other mechanisms.  How R&D processes and strategies have evolved, and will probably continue to evolve, will be the subject of several programs at SEMICON West.

The most significant trend in R&D in the industry, and increasingly important to the supply chain, is the growth and changing role of R&D consortia.  Not long ago, the top research organizations served the advanced research needs of IDMs.  Today, equipment and material suppliers, EDA software providers, fabless chip companies, and other diverse organizations participate in consortia initiatives.  In the near future, there may be increasing involvement from system companies like Apple, Cisco, and Google.  Along with changes in participation, the types of research conducted by consortia have also evolved, many directly involving component and subsystem suppliers. Today, there are consortia that specialize in key areas like wafer size transition and lithography, but also many of their programs seem to overlap, potentially creating inefficiencies and redundancies in R&D efforts that consortia were supposed to eliminate.

Many of these issues will be discussed in a special executive panel on semiconductor R&D at SEMICON West.  On Wednesday, July 10, I will be joined on stage by Daniel Armbrust, president and CEO of SEMATECH; Michael Liehr, executive VP at CNSE; Dr. Laurent Malier, CEO of CEA-Leti; and Dr. Luc Van den hove, president and CEO of imec to discuss the critical trends and developments in R&D and how they will affect SEMI members.  We will discuss the important role of consortia and what’s new at their organizations, but also share our perspectives on the changing role of the R&D engineer and scientist in the industry today.  Increasingly, R&D is becoming more about managing complex multi-organization processes and innovation platforms than it is about pure research looking for the next “ah-ha” discovery.

Another critical R&D issue is the changing innovation pipeline delivered by technology start-ups.  In the past, the industry enjoyed a healthy ecosystem of emerging companies funded by venture capital that were ripe candidates for merger and acquisition.  Today, VC venture funding in the semiconductor industry is down nearly 50 percent from 2009 levels.  To help address this problem, SEMICON West will feature the first Silicon Innovation Forum (SIF) focused on new and emerging companies in the industry.  Organized by Applied Ventures, Dow Chemical Company, Intel Capital, Micron Ventures, TEL Venture Capital, and Samsung Ventures, SIF is designed to bridge funding gaps for new and early-stage companies by providing a platform to showcase new ideas to potential partners and investors.  SIF will consist of an open conference program on July 9 which is free to all SEMICON West attendees, followed by a reception and showcase for qualified investors.

The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) has been a critical component in the R&D planning process and SEMICON West will again feature presentations and discussions on the latest version.  The ITRS is undergoing a major change this year to reflect the market evolution towards highly-flexible mobile devices. Presentations include topics on system drivers, design, modeling and simulation, process integration, devices, and structures (PIDS), lithography, front-end processes (FEP), and emerging research devices (ERD). Back-end-of-line working groups will present challenges for future interconnects — such as through silicon vias (TSVs); the latest roadmaps for semiconductor assembly; systems packaging applications, “More than Moore,” and the testing considerations for these quickly changing technologies.  They will also discuss roadmap developments in micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and radio frequency and analog/mixed-signal technologies (RFAMS).  Look for these report-out sessions on the SEMICON West TechXpots on Thursday, July 11.

Other critical R&D topics that will be discussed at the SEMICON TechXPOT sessions are the latest developments in  lithography, processing requirements for non-planar transistors, 450mm wafer processing, advanced materials, and nano-defect metrology.  Unlike a conference with a variety of academic and special-interest topics, the SEMICON TechXPOT sessions quickly and succinctly provide the latest news and status from leading experts in the field, including “in the know” executives from organizations like ASML, Intel, GF, SEMATECH, G450C, ASE, ST Microelectronics and many more. In addition to their public presentations, TechXPOT speakers often make themselves readily available, providing suppliers and other stakeholders critical information on technology requirements and opportunities.

R&D engineers and scientists remain one of the most important audiences at SEMICON West.  Through private meetings with their top customers and suppliers, and through TechXPOT and other programs that deliver the latest developments in key areas of industry development, we think SEMICON West provides the most cost-effective and time-efficient value in the industry.  I hope you can join us.

For more information on SEMICON West and to register, visit (free registration ends on May 10)


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