IoT’s divergent needs will drive different types of technologies

By DAVE HEMKER, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Lam Research Corp.

Given the current buzz around the Internet of Things (IoT), it is easy to lose sight of the challenges
– both economic and technical. On the economic side is the need to cost-effectively manufacture up to a trillion sensors used to gather data, while on the technical side, the challenge involves building out the infrastructure. This includes enabling the transmission, storage, and analysis of volumes of data far exceeding anything we see today. These divergent needs will drive the semiconductor equipment industry to provide very different types of manufacturing solutions to support the IoT.

In order to fulfill the promise of the IoT, sensor technology will need to become nearly ubiquitous in our businesses, homes, electronic products, cars, and even our clothing. Per-unit costs for sensors will need to be kept very low to ensure the technology is economically viable. To support this need, trailing-edge semiconductor manufacturing capabilities provide a viable option since fully depreciated wafer processing equipment can produce chips cost efficiently. For semiconductor equipment suppliers, this translates into additional sales of refurbished and productivity-focused equipment and upgrades that improve yield, throughput, and running costs. In addition to being produced inexpensively, sensors intended for use in the IoT will need to meet several criteria. First, they need to operate on very low amounts of power. In fact, some may even be self-powered via MEMS (microelectromechanical systems)-based oscillators or the collection of environmental radio frequency energy, also known as energy harvesting/scavenging. Second, they will involve specialized functions, for example, the ability to monitor pH or humidity. Third, to enable the transmission of data collected to the supporting infrastructure, good wireless communications capabilities will be important. Finally, sensors will need to be small, easily integrated into other structures – such as a pane of glass, and available in new form factors – like flexible substrates for clothing. Together, these new requirements will drive innovation in chip technology across the semiconductor industry’s ecosystem.

The infrastructure needed to support the IoT, in contrast, will require semiconductor performance to continue its historical advancement of doubling every 18-24 months. Here, the challenges are a result of the need for vast amounts of networking, storage in the Cloud, and big data analysis. Additionally, many uses for the IoT will involve risks far greater than those that exist in today’s internet. With potential medical and transportation applications, for example, the results of data analysis performed in real time can literally be a matter of life or death. Likewise, managing the security and privacy of the data being generated will be paramount. The real-world nature of things also adds an enormous level of complexity in terms of predictive analysis.

Implementing these capabilities and infrastructure on the scale imagined in the IoT will require far more powerful memory and logic devices than are currently available. This need will drive the continued extension of Moore’s Law and demand for advanced semiconductor manufacturing capability, such as atomic-scale wafer processing. Controlling manufacturing process variability will also become increasingly important to ensure that every device in the new, interconnected world operates as expected.

With development of the IoT, semiconductor equipment companies can look forward to opportunities beyond communications and computing, though the timing of its emergence is uncertain. For wafer processing equipment suppliers in particular, new markets for leading-edge systems used in the IoT infrastructure and productivity-focused upgrades for sensor manufacturing are expected to develop.

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3 thoughts on “IoT’s divergent needs will drive different types of technologies

  1. Mohamed Elgafi

    Certainly there is a far reaching impact. Which industry will benefit the most, also who are the disruption losers ?

    Reply
  2. Meenu Sarin

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for this article which provides a refreshing view on IoT’s divergent needs that will drive different types of technologies in the semicon space.

    While I do agree with you on the cost effective manufacturing solutions approach for sensors (and the same goes for the microcontrollers and connecting technologies), I would like to differ slightly on the infrastructure part. Yes, while we need advanced nodes for the massive storage and timely data analysis needs, I think it is more of novel approaches – both in the underlying semicon content of the infrastructure as well as how it is used in the application part – rather than scaling that will be helpful here. Our present cost challenges at advanced semicon nodes just cannot provide a viable IoT solution which needs to be cost effective as a whole to be mass adopted.

    Have written a post on value capture by the semiconductor industry in the EE Times, “More than hardware sockets – Opportunities for the semiconductor industry in IoT”. Perhaps you may be interested to read the same and share your view. Thanks. Meenu

    Reply
  3. Jonas Berge

    Sure: process control, factory automation, building automation, robotics, home automation, health care, power grid, and trasportation etc. all have different needs with respect to price, speed, time synchronization, data valume, ruggedness, hazardous areas, battery life, and size etc. In my personal oppinon, different protocols will be required at the lowest level of sensors and actuators to meet these needs. Most likely this will be the protocols already in use by digital sensors in these industries such as FOUNDATION fieldbus for process control, ASI, CompoNet, and IO-link for factory automation and so on – with some kind of linking device to connect the sensors and actuators (“things”) across a secured Internet (Intranet). This will provide backwards compatibility with existing equipment, smooth trasition, easy and fast adoption.

    Reply

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