2018 Industry Outlook: It’s Time to Get Serious about 5G

2018 Industry Outlook: It’s Time to Get Serious about 5G

Rob Kavanagh is the Global Business Leader for Advanced Packaging Technologies at Dow Electronic Materials.

While the entire semiconductor industry is buzzing about explosive and sustained growth well into the 2020s driven by smart everything (homes, cities, industry), automotive electronics, artificial intelligence and more, what’s truly exciting is how we are going to support the connectivity of all those applications. 5G is where it all comes together. Without it, connecting all this disparate data will be extremely difficult and ineffective.

Take, for example, homeowners who are embarking on upgrades in their homes. Everything they install—from light bulbs to appliances, to thermostats—can be IoT-enabled. It’s all cool, but without a common connectivity backbone to make these technologies connect so they operate seamlessly, it can be more of a hassle. Integrating IoT into our homes is relatively simple and yet it illustrates the frustrations one can experience trying to make it operate reliably. The complexity is even more daunting with IoT devices that are integrated into industrial and automotive settings where the density of devices and volume of data are exponentially greater.

When it comes to mission-critical applications in industry and automotive, these difficulties can’t be tolerated. This is where 5G becomes the enabling piece that pulls together all of the various data inputs with a common communication protocol, delivers extremely fast download speeds and eliminates latency, delivering the required instantaneous communication and reaction time.

One area of particular interest for 5G is automotive electronics. The demanding communication needs for automotive will require innovation to enable 5G capabilities. Performance is important but reliability is paramount. We are being challenged to provide higher reliability materials while holding down the cost. In contrast, IoT device manufacturers are finding new life for older nodes because there is sufficient capability at the right cost. Such products call for production-proven materials, ensuring the bread and butter of our business, but this is not what’s driving the next wave of innovation.

Interestingly, there is a greater drive for improvements in performance and functionality in smartphone, wearables and other consumer electronics relative to automotive. Thinking back on one of the drivers of the past decade, the excitement was all about how the next-generation advanced package would enable new devices by providing a reduction in power usage, new functionality, and better displays. The mobile device business has become so big, with consumers willing to pay for new innovations, the technologies have become ubiquitous. And the drumbeat continues. Smartphone manufacturers are still focused on improving performance and functionality to satisfy consumer demands for video, gaming and a wide array of other technologies. This is driving mainstream advanced packaging technologies like flip chip, fan-in and fan-out wafer-level packaging to provide a massive business base for the foreseeable future, in the absence of any macroeconomic disruption. This also translates into consumers who will likely be willing to pay for 5G in smartphones when adoption begins to take hold.

For years, the smartphone market for advanced packaging technologies has driven a large portion of the electronics manufacturing base, with each new generation always expected to spark a supercycle of upgrades. For the past few years, those cycles have become less dramatic. However, can 5G be the trigger for the next true smartphone supercycle? The faster downloads and exponential increase in device functionality could have everyone racing to upgrade their smartphones.

With early deployments planned for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, we’ll have real-world demonstrations that will answer the density question. Can 5G handle extremely concentrated, massive demands for data while maintaining fast data speeds? While full deployment of 5G will roll out over a few years past 2020, now is the time for the technologists to set the course towards the architecture and design solutions needed for large-scale use. As materials suppliers, we’ll start to see broader pull from the market for 5G-specific materials solutions in preparation for full deployment.

What still needs to be solved for 5G? We don’t expect the advanced packaging technologies themselves to be that different, but the design and materials requirements to handle 5G frequency still need to be understood. For example, packing more technology into phones requires highly integrated modules or systems with high-density chips. This will push the limits of thermal budgets and means it is time to address thermal solutions. In addition, extremely demanding IoT applications, such as industrial and automotive, require ultra-low loss dielectric materials to prevent signal degradation over long distances. These materials will give designers more freedom to design packages and maintain speed and reliability of communications between IoT devices. These developments will drive Dow’s advanced packaging innovation in 2018 and beyond.