After a year living in the shadow of COVID 19, the speakers at the Technology Unites Global Summit Executive Forum have some positive news to share about its impact on the semiconductor industry and vice-versa. The verdict is unanimous: COVID 19 catapulted the digital transformation into reality, which means explosive growth for the industry. At the same time, without advancements in digital capabilities powered by semiconductors, society would not have been able to cope with shelter-in-place orders, nor would we have seen such rapid genome sequencing of the virus, which lead to the development of rapid tests and vaccines in record time.
After listening to several of the presentations, I noticed a distinct theme emerging: semiconductors are the key element to the digital transformation, which is critical to – as imec’s Luc Van den Hove described it – “the new equilibrium” for our economy and ecology. “The pandemic dramatically changed how we live and work,” he said. “Will we be able to return? It will not be the same. We have to learn from the past what the post coronavirus era should look like.”
In addition to Van den hove, SEMI CEO Ajit Manocha, Infineon Austria’s CEO Sabine Herlitschka, TSMC Europe President Maria Marced, and Comet Group’s Kevin Crofton and many others offered some inciteful perspectives on the opportunities that lie ahead for our industry, along with the responsibility they bring for contributing to a sustainable society.
Digital Transformation and the Connected World
“Digital is the way forward,” said Manocha. “Without semiconductors, the transformation can’t take place.” Semiconductors are ubiquitous, he noted, and artificial intelligence (AI) is at the intersection of every industry. This is why during COVID 19, companies across the semiconductor supply chain were designated as “essential” worldwide. He predicted that the industry will double in the next 10-15 years. In 2020, there were 30 billion connected devices. By 2025, that number will reach 300 billion (Figure 1).
Kevin Crofton, of Comet Group, talked about the supercycle we are in as a result of this digitization. He echoed Manocha’s sentiments about the pandemic accelerating digital transformation, noting that the changing business environment.
“We are in a phase of growth none of us have seen or can comprehend,” he said. “COVID proved we could be effective and efficient without being in the offices.”
Crofton pointed out that it took four years to develop the Mumps vaccine using conventional methods, yet AI allowed us to get the first vaccine up of running in three months in March of 2020, and that since then 200 vaccines have been tested.
“In this environment, it’s impossible for business to navigate these waters alone. It’s going to be required that we collaborate across companies, up and down the food chain, even with competitors, to satisfy societal demand.” he said.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
As he so often does, Van den hove painted a vivid picture of what is taking place, what needs to happen, and what imec is doing to accelerate progress. He also talked about how collaboration between the life science and semiconductor industries is needed for rapid solutions.
While he applauded the fast vaccine development that could not have been solved without AI, he said we need better and more widespread testing. “Current testing methods aren’t good enough… the numerous variants require rapid, easy and accurate identification of virus spreaders.” To address this, imec has developed a breathalyzer test for COVID 19. It captures the virus on a chip from exhaled breath and can detect the virus RNA in just a few minutes.
He also said COVID 19 was a ‘tipping point’ for the adoption of new technology in health sectors that usually lag behind, he noted the overnight transition to telemedicine and remote monitoring. “It was the shock needed to shift to a patient-centric healthcare model,” he said.
This shift requires more technology adoption that goes beyond wearables to include insertable, implantable, and ingestible devices for point-of-care diagnostics. This brings up the need to address all the sensitive and personal data being generated. Low-energy AI solutions for edge computing, 5G and even next-generation 6G are the answer. This is where all the work to develop 3D integration technologies will pay off, as it is the ideal platform to address these needs.
“Technology plays a crucial role to get us through a crisis. Imagine going through it without it,” he said. “At the heart is collaborative R&D… We need to join diverse and global forces to drive technology and create a better, resilient, sustainable world.”
Digital Transformation needs 5G and Automotive
From simply helping us coping with confinement to fast deployment of the vaccine, high-performance computing (HPC) has played an important role. Productivity didn’t suffer as we transitioned to video conferencing for work and school, noted Maria Marced.
“People are anxiously anticipating the 5G experience,” she noted. “It is a steppingstone to building connected cities, countries, and the world.”
The automotive market, in particular, is set to benefit from new developments in 5G and HPC as cars contain more and more silicon content and electronics to support advanced power electronic vehicles (HV), advanced driver-assist systems, and autonomous vehicles. This need has closed the five-year gap that existed between advanced technology development and its use in automotive applications.
“This industry is resilient because it never stops innovating,” said Marced. “Even though the downturn (from COVID 19) was worse than 2009, the semiconductor industry grew beyond the expected 6% in 2020 to 30%, signifying consumer’s appetite for new devices.” She predicted that this growth momentum will continue throughout 2021 and onwards.
Crisis as Opportunities for Change
“Never waste a good crisis. Crises are always opportunities for change,” noted Herlitschka. “The pandemic has shown us what is really important to us. The importance of sustainability is one of the core lessons learned.” Her talk focused on how semiconductors can enable economic, environmental and societal sustainability.
She said that despite the pandemic, global megatrends are still the same. Urbanization is still a trend, and there is no vaccine that can solve climate change. She called on the semiconductor industry to be a catalyst for sustainability because we have an impact on broader markets.
While not all industries fared well during the pandemic, the semiconductor industry was resilient, with 6.5% global growth in sales and wafer area shipment, she noted. Given the current scarcity of chips and high demand for semiconductors, that growth is expected to continue.
Despite the pandemic, we are a capital-intense industry, with 38 fabs opening worldwide by 2024, explained Herlitschka. The “data giants” are becoming clear economic factors, with market capitalization comparable to the GDPs of entire nations (Figure 2).
“As an industry, we are cornerstones to modern society. And we are enablers for sustainability in the economy, environment, and in broader society,” she said. “It’s all about the people.” Herlitschka encouraged us to think big and act boldly. That’s what she says a crisis demonstrates to us. “As an industry, we need to come up with technology solutions that address global challenges. Education and qualification are the basis for everything from semiconductors to democracy,” she said.
But Wait, There’s More…
These are just a few of the Technology Unites Global Summit executive form presentations. There are a lot more where that came from, in addition to other forums. I’ll be viewing and writing about the Diversity and Inclusion forum next. All are available on-demand until March 26. Be sure to check it out for yourself. You can also stop by our booth to download our media kit, 2021 Yearbook, and learn about this year’s 3D InCites Awards. ~ FvT