Global economics limiting semiconductor business growth

By Ed Korcynzski, Sr. Technical Editor

The near-term outlook for semiconductor manufacturing is challenging, with revenues down slightly but equipment spending up a bit, as reported by experts during the SEMI/Gartner Market Symposium held yesterday afternoon. The global economy is facing extreme uncertainty and is still recovering from the 2008/2009 financial crisis. Duncan Meldrum, Chief Economist with Hilltop Economics, explained why the after-shocks of the 2008/2009 global financial crisis combined with current political uncertainties result in a difficult investment environment. Compared to the 1993-2007 era when world real GDP was +3.2%, there are many indicators that the current ~2.3% GDP growth is the ‘new normal.’

“Rolling recessions in different regions have been pulling down global growth,” explained Meldrum. “Before the financial crisis, all the growth rates tended to be together in a coordinated global market. We’re actually seeing potential growth cut in half compared to what it was before the recession. That will create a new speed limit on the global economy, so it’ll be a tougher world than we’re used to.” These are high level macro-economic global investment numbers, but there’s a high correlation between these numbers and semiconductor industry silicon wafer processing in Millions of Square Inches (MSI).

Capital equipment forecast

Bob Johnson, Gartner research vice president, presented the outlook for semiconductor capital equipment, based on Garner’s economic model assumptions:

  • Consumer demand will remain weak,
  • High inventory of chips in all channels,
  • NAND and DRAM in oversupply for the rest of 2016,
  • Demand weakness continues longer term,
  • No new significant demand driver, and
  • Uncertain global economic climate post-Brexit.

Gartner is not bullish on the Internet-of-Things (IoT) to provide a next wave of demand. Premium smart-phones are expected to soon saturate global markets, and PC markets see weak consumer demand. In emerging markets, smartphones will take the majority of disposable income, which lowers new PC and tablet purchases by 10% through 2020.

NAND Flash is the long-term bright spot in the industry, with most of the growth driven by solid-state drives (SSD). However short-term oversupply in the second-half of 2016 is expected due to weak end markets, and increased output of planar 3bit/cell products. 3D-NAND represents 19% of the PetaBytes (PB) of total demand in 2016, increasing dramatically to 70% by 2020. SSDs are not just for PCs and mobile devices, but are moving into the enterprise segment and data centers, and 84% of SSDS will use 3D-NAND by 2020.

“3D-NAND manufacturing represents a major shift from litho-centric to etch-centric processing,” reminded Johnson. “The cost structures is still not competitive with 2D-NAND, but there will still be ~300k wafer-starts-per-month in the fourths quarter of 2016. By 2018, 3D-NAND will be half of the total NAND bits produced.” In response to 3D-NAND competition, 2D-NAND suppliers will likely do another shrink using their fully depreciated fabs, which will contribute to short-term oversupply.

Chinese foundry plans

Sam Wong, Gartner research vice president, discussed challenges of the foundry market related to China’s plans to develop domestic IC fab capability that is globally competitive. “Believe that China is really serious this time, with $140B investment,” said Wong. “The SOC capability of China is world-standard.”

For foundry markets in general, with increases in the number of mask layers with successive nodes the selling prices for finished wafers has to continue increasing. Wafer costs for fabless customers buying from foundries are now <$4K for 28nm-node, and <$7K for 14nm-node. TSMC ramped 14nm in one-half-year, and reports unprecedentedly low defects per mask layer to allow them to produce large Apple chips with high yield.

Packaging trends and china

Jim Walker, Gartner vice president of research, presented on “Semiconductor Packaging: the crucial growth component in China’s electronics supply chain.” IC manufacturing is critical to the economic growth and national security of China, and it is part of the ‘made in China 2015’ plan issued by China’s State Council.

China todays has already invested sufficient resources to now have ~1/3 of the global floor-space in Outsourced Semiconductor Assembly and Test (OSAT) facilities, while the percent of global revenue taken by Chinese companies is still much less. Since China has updated investment plans earlier this year, both South Korea and Taiwan industry organizations issued public statements of the need for strategic counter-investments. The semiconductor industry production in Taiwan represents ~13% of its total GDP, so China’s investment into this market is seen as a major threat.

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