How emerging IoT impacts the semiconductor sector

By Paula Doe, SEMI

In this 50th year anniversary of Moore’s Law, the steady scaling of silicon chips’ cost and performance that has so changed our world over the last half century is now poised to change it even further through the Internet of Things, in ways we can’t yet imagine, suggests Intel VP of IoT Doug Davis, who will give the keynote at SEMICON West (July 14-16) this year.  Powerful sensors, processors, and communications now make it possible to bring more intelligent analysis of the greater context to many industrial decisions for potentially significant returns, which will drive the first round of serious adoption of the IoT. But there is also huge potential for adding microprocessor intelligence to all sorts of everyday objects and connecting them with outside information, to solve all sorts of real problems, from saving energy to saving babies’ lives. “We see a big impact on the chip industry,” says Davis, noting the needs to deal with highly fragmented markets, as well to reduce power, improve connectivity, and find ways to assure security.

The end of the era of custom embedded designs?

The IoT may mean the end of the era of embedded chips, argues Paul Brody, IBM’s former VP of IoT, who moves to a new job this month, one of the speakers in the SEMICON West TechXPOT program on the impact of the IoT on the semiconductor sector.  Originally, custom embedded solutions offered the potential to design just the desired features, at some higher engineering cost, to reduce the total cost of the device as much as possible. Now, however, high volumes of mobile gear and open Android systems have brought the cost of a loaded system on a chip with a dual core processor, a gigabit of DRAM and GPS down to only $10.  “The SoC will become so cheap that people won’t do custom anymore,” says Brody. “They’ll just put an SoC in every doorknob and window frame.  The custom engineering will increasingly be in the software.”

Security of all these connected devices will require re-thinking as well, since securing all the endpoints, down to every light bulb, is essentially impossible, and supposedly trusted parties have turned out not to be so trustworthy after all. “With these SoCs everywhere, the cost of distributed compute power will become zero,” he argues, noting that will drive systems towards more distributed processing.  One option for security then could be a block chain system like that used by Bit Coin, which allows coordination with no central control, and when not all the players are trustworthy. Instead of central coordination, each message is broadcast to all nodes, and approved by the vote of the majority, requiring only that the majority of the points be trustworthy.

While much of the high volume IoT demand may be for relatively standard, low cost chips, the high value opportunity for chip makers may increasingly be in design and engineering services for the expanding universe of customers. “Past waves of growth were driven by computer companies, but as computing goes into everything this time, it will be makers of things like Viking ranges and Herman Miller office furniture who will driving the applications, who will need much more help from their suppliers,” he suggests.

Intel Graphics

Source: Intel, 2015

Adding context to the data from the tool

The semiconductor industry has long been a leader in connecting things in the factory, from early M2M for remote access for service management and improving overall equipment effectiveness, to the increased automation and software management of 300mm manufacturing, points out Jeremy Read, Applied Materials VP of Manufacturing Services, who’ll be speaking in another SEMICON West 2015 program on how the semiconductor sector will use the IoT. But even in today’s highly connected fabs, the connections so far are still limited to linking individual elements for dedicated applications specifically targeting a single end, such as process control, yield improvement, scheduling or dispatching.  These applications, perhaps best described as intermediate between M2M and IoT, have provided huge value, and have seen enormous growth in complexity. “We have seen fabs holding 50 TB of data at the 45nm node, increasing to 140 TB in 20nm manufacturing,” he notes.

Now the full IoT vision is to converge this operational technology (OT) of connected things in the factory with the global enterprise (IT) network, to allow new ways to monitor, search and manage these elements to provide as yet unachievable levels of manufacturing performance. “However, we’ve learned that just throwing powerful computational resources at terabytes of unstructured data is not effective – we need to understand the shared CONTEXT of the tools, the process physics, and the device/design intent to arrive at meaningful and actionable knowledge,” says Read.  He notes that for the next step towards an “Internet-of-semiconductor-manufacturing-things” we will need to develop the means to apply new analytical and optimizing applications to both the data and its full manufacturing context, to achieve truly new kinds of understanding.

With comprehensive data and complete context information it will become possible to transform the service capability in a truly radical fashion – customer engineers can use the power of cloud computation and massive data management to arrive at insights into the precise condition of tools, potentially including the ability to predict failures or changes in processing capability. “This does require customers to allow service providers to come fully equipped into the fab – not locking out all use of such capabilities,” he says. “If we are to realize the full potential of these opportunities, we must first meet these challenges of security and IP protection.”

Besides these programs on the realistic impact of the IoT on the semiconductor manufacturing technology sector, SEMICON West 2015, July 14-16 in San Francisco, will also feature related programs on what’s coming next across MEMS, digital health, embedded nonvolatile memory, flexible/hybrid systems, and connected/autonomous cars.  


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  1. Pingback: Further on IoT opportunities for semiconductor industry | Travelling on the Silicon Road - Part 2

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