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.