Scaling Up Production of Chips with Automation
Published on : Wednesday 06-09-2023
Industrial Automation believes over the next few years, the semiconductor industry will witness a significant increase in application of automation technologies.
Decoding the Semiconductor Surge: A Trillion-Dollar Future - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCoGhwm6kPA
Modern electronics is built on integrated circuits (ICs). Also known as chip, microchip or microelectronic circuit, the IC is a semiconductor, usually made from silicon wafer. The chip powers everything from smartphones and computers to medical devices and automobiles. A thorough understanding of the IC and the intricate processes involved in its production is essential for industry professionals. Let us delve deeper into the world of ICs and examine their importance, the production process, and the crucial role that automation plays in this intricate process.
Let us get started by understanding what an IC or a chip is.
The IC is a small semiconductor device that combines several electronic parts, including transistors, resistors, and capacitors, all packed in a single silicon chip. These chips have transformed electronics, allowing for the development of powerful and energy-efficient devices.
The two main categories of ICs are analog and digital. Analog ICs facilitate continuous signals, making them ideal for audio and video processing. Digital ICs, on the other hand, manipulate discrete binary signals, laying the groundwork for computing and digital communication.
The IC fabrication process
The process of manufacturing chips, also known as the IC fabrication process, is extremely complex. We have mentioned below the key steps involved in chip manufacturing.
Design and Layout: Skilled engineers begin the process by designing the circuitry of the chip. They carefully design the layout, laying out how each element will be connected to produce the desired functionality.
Wafer Fabrication: Silicon wafers are the building blocks for the fabrication of integrated circuits. These wafers are made from silicon crystals that have been thinly cut into disks the size of a circle. The purity and quality of the wafer are essential for ensuring consistent IC performance.
Photolithography: Through the process of photolithography, the silicon wafer is repeatedly covered with the IC's design layout. To create the pattern, a photoresist material is applied to the wafer's surface, exposed to ultraviolet light through a mask, and then developed.
Etching: Using chemical or plasma processes, the exposed wafer areas are selectively removed (etched). It describes the different silicon wafer features, such as transistor channels and interconnects.
Doping and Implantation: Ion implantation or diffusion processes are used to introduce dopants (impurity atoms) into the wafer in order to change the electrical characteristics of the silicon. This process is essential for creating areas with various conductive properties.
Oxidation: When a wafer is heated to a high temperature and placed in an oxygen-rich environment, a thin layer of silicon dioxide (oxide) grows on the wafer's surface. In the IC, the oxide layer serves as insulation.
Deposition: Using chemical vapour deposition (CVD) or physical vapour deposition (PVD), thin films of various materials, including silicon, metals, and dielectrics, are deposited onto the wafer. These films make up the IC's conductive and insulating layers.
Chemical Mechanical Polishing (CMP): CMP is used to remove excess material from the wafer surface and produce a smooth, even surface topography.
Patterning and Metallization: Additional photolithography steps and etching procedures define the interconnects, which connect the various wafer components. The final wiring that connects the transistors is made by depositing and patterning metal layers, usually made of aluminum or copper.
Testing and Packaging: Each integrated circuit or chip is rigorously tested to ensure its functionality. The functional chips are separated into individual units and packaged in protective casings with external connection points, while the defective chips are discarded.
The role of automation in IC manufacturing
For many years, dedicated automation teams have been playing essential roles in semiconductor manufacturing facilities. These teams manage the scheduling and tracking of chip production, troubleshoot network or equipment issues, and transfer data files to and from central locations. They also convert the data that station controllers output. For semiconductor companies at every stage of their operations, from research and chip design to production and sales, automation technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have the potential to generate enormous business value.
Fabricating integrated circuits requires a lot of capital. Due to the complicated manufacturing challenges, they have high operating costs. They also have to deal with ongoing changes in consumer and market demands. The fabrication of chips consumes a lot of energy and power as they run nonstop during times of high demand. This is where automation and Industry 4.0 come to the rescue.
In the words of Mark da Silva, senior director of the smart manufacturing initiative at SEMI, “Smart manufacturing, or Industry 4.0, is a collection of technologies that have the potential to increase the efficiency of traditional semiconductor manufacturing facilities.”
Integrated circuits are the driving force behind modern-day technological advancements. In order to produce dependable, effective, and cutting-edge electronic devices, industry experts must comprehend the complexities of chip manufacturing and the pivotal role of automation.
Automation technologies can drive the smart manufacturing of chips, improving the accuracy and repeatability of the fabrication process and speeding up technological advancement in order to put cutting-edge electronics in the hands of customers around the world. Future developments in the field of chip production are expected to be even more exciting as automation advances further.
Meeting the challenges
The semiconductor industry worldwide has been driving technological innovation and powering the digital revolution for decades. Since the global demand for chips is growing at a significant pace, chip complexity and the required skills remain major challenges. This is where automation comes in, playing an integral part in semiconductor manufacturing.
The semiconductor industry has faced various difficulties and opportunities, including chip shortages, rising chip demand, government investments, and more. While there may be challenges that affect the industry's outlook, demand for semiconductors is anticipated to be strong throughout the decade, with revenues expected to increase by more than 80% from $550 billion in 2021 to $1 trillion in 2030.
Smart manufacturing solutions can help alleviate the semiconductor industry's talent shortage. According to Anjaneya Thakar, senior director of product marketing in Synopsys’ Silicon Engineering Group, “The rapid growth of IC manufacturing capacity has created a severe shortfall of experts to run these modern factories. Smart manufacturing is expected to automate decision-making to compensate for this shortfall.”
Taking note of several reports and articles published in recent years by organisations like McKinsey & Company and the Semiconductor Industry Association, the impact of the current talent shortage in the chip manufacturing industry is being felt globally. Automation in semiconductor manufacturing can be essential, driven by various applications and benefits, such as the ability to carry out tasks and processes seamlessly. It can provide significant benefits to manufacturers, such as enhanced productivity and faster learning ramps for both new and reskilled technical resources.
Automation exposure to IC manufacturing
To improve the efficiency of their operations, many manufacturers are turning to technology such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. According to a McKinsey survey, 30% of semiconductor device manufacturers are already generating value with the help of AI and ML. These manufacturers have largely invested in AI and ML talent as well as in data infrastructure, technology, and other enablers. They have also fully scaled up their initial use cases. Conversely, about 70% of manufacturers’ AI/ML processes are still in the pilot stage.
AI and ML are gaining importance as crucial tools across the entire value chain as chip manufacturers try to boost productivity in research, chip design, and manufacturing while also shortening the time to market. According to another McKinsey study, semiconductor companies' earnings before interest and taxes increase by US$5 billion to US$8 billion annually as a result of these technologies (AI and ML).
Automated tools can deliver faster time-to-data, improve workforce productivity, and increase manufacturing throughput. By embracing Industry 4.0, manufacturers can collect data specific to equipment or workstation controllers. They can also track all the information related to production workflows. By integrating this information with automation techniques and algorithms, businesses can achieve lower operational costs and improved production efficiency. Such approaches can be implemented in the design of new factories as well as advancements to existing factories.
Automation in the Indian semiconductor industry
In the Indian context, the semiconductor manufacturing industry plays a pivotal role, contributing a lot to the country’s economic growth. As India continues to develop its semiconductor ecosystem, automation has a significant role in advancing the industry, enabling the country to emerge as a leading producer of chips or semiconductors at a global level. However, there are certain challenges ranging from the talent pool and investments and infrastructure to research and development (R&D), policy support, data security, and intellectual property.
Recently, in an effort to boost semiconductor manufacturing in the country, Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw, announced that the government will soon launch a program to set the country on a good semiconductor path for the next ten years.
"When PM approved the Semicon India program on January 1, 2022, we promised that within the next 14-16 months, we will work hard, learn from the world's experience, and come out with a program which will take the country on a good semiconductor journey for the next 10 years," Vaishnaw said.
The Semicon India Program has launched with an outlay of Rs 76,000 crore. The program aims to foster the growth of India's semiconductor and display manufacturing ecosystems.
The goal of the Semicon India Program is to offer companies and consortiums that work in Silicon Semiconductor Fabs, Display Fabs, Compound Semiconductors, Silicon Photonics, Sensors (including MEMS) Fabs, Semiconductor Packaging (ATMP/OSAT), and Semiconductor Design an alluring incentive support system.
Several multinational corporations are paving the way in order to support the government's initiatives to take India's semiconductor industry to new heights. According to a news report from the Economic Times, Foxconn is reportedly in talks to create new partnerships with Japan's TMH Group and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) to set up semiconductor fabrication facilities in India.
It was previously reported that the HCL Group is about to submit a proposal to the Centre for the development of an assembly, testing, marking, and packaging (ATMP) unit for semiconductors, with a project cost estimate of between US$200 and US$300 million.
Top companies and startups driving innovation in chip manufacturing
The IC manufacturing industry in India and abroad is a fast-paced and competitive sector. Companies at both the local and global levels are significantly contributing to advancements in semiconductor manufacturing and associated technologies. Since the semiconductor industry is a dynamic and highly competitive landscape, several companies and startups are continuously setting the boundaries of technological innovation. Let us explore the leading semiconductor players in India and around the world.
Vedanta Ltd: Founded in 1980, Vedanta Ltd is India’s leading diversified natural resources company. It focuses on zinc, silver, lead, oil and gas, iron ore, copper, aluminum, and power. In 2022, Vedanta and Taiwanese chipmaker Foxconn signed an MoU with the Gujarat government to set up the first semiconductor and display manufacturing plant in India at an investment of INR 1,54,000 crore. Foxconn has recently announced its withdrawal from the JV.
Moschip Technologies Ltd: As a publicly traded semiconductor and system design services provider, Moschip Technologies is a Hyderabad-based company. With significant investments in leading-edge technologies, the company has built a wide range of products and SoCs for networking, computing, and consumer-grade applications.
SPEL Semiconductor Ltd: Founded in 1984, SPEL Semiconductor deals with semiconductor integrated circuit (IC) assembly and testing facilities. The company has pioneered the Indian OSAT market and continues to grow steadily. With innovative and reliable services, it has become a preferred choice for businesses in the semiconductor industry.
Additionally, major Indian startups involved in the world of semiconductor manufacturing include Valtrix Systems, Saankhya Labs, Sankalp Semiconductor, Chip Web Technologies, QpiSemi Technology Pvt Ltd, and Astera Labs, among others.
Apart from these Indian players, there are global companies and startups revolutionising the international semiconductor market. Some of the popular global players are Intel Corporation, Samsung Electronics, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), Qualcomm, Broadcom, SK Hynix, Micron Technology, and Nvidia, among others. Global startups that are leading the way in chip manufacturing include Cerebras Systems, Graphcore, Efinix, Wiliot, and SiFive.
These companies, both at the national and international levels, constantly invest in research and development and automation technology in order to build cutting-edge chips that power the world.
The strategic road map
The semiconductor industry has been witnessing exponential growth in India as well as abroad. This is significantly influenced by the rising demand for integrated circuits or chips across sectors. By investing in automation technologies such as AI, ML, and Industry 4.0, companies in the industry will be able to effectively optimise their portfolios and improve efficiency during the research and chip-design phases.
Companies can cut costs associated with maintaining yield, avoid time-consuming iterations, and accelerate yield ramp-up by eliminating defects and out-of-tolerance process steps. Additionally, they can automate the laborious procedures involved in designing physical layouts and performing verification.
It is no surprise that semiconductor manufacturers must go through numerous time-consuming and expensive iterations based on feedback from manufacturing if errors are made during the design of an IC. Thus, by implementing machine learning algorithms, they may circumvent such problems and recognise patterns in component failures, forecast likely failures in new designs, and put forward optimal layouts to boost yield.
Companies must prioritise scaling up AI and ML initiatives on a strategic level. They should make efforts, which entail coordinating data, deciding on priority use cases, and fostering collaboration among the right business, data science, and engineering talents, to make their projects successful. The AI/ML efforts should also ideally be tied to specific business goals so that business units and business functions have a shared vision to experience the transformation through to completion.
The semiconductor industry is on the verge of transformation. Companies that do not invest significantly in automation strategies and technologies could experience risks and be left behind the competition. Despite adopting different strategies depending on their business models and objectives, level of AI/ML proficiency, and strategic priorities, the end goal of semiconductor companies is always to enhance and advance productivity and innovation.
We at Industrial Automation believe that over the next few years, the semiconductor industry will witness a significant increase in the application of automation technologies and smart manufacturing. Scaling up their strategies will enable companies to harness the full potential of automation technologies and drive efficiency and innovation.