These are strange times. Usually face-to-face meetings and conferences are how we catch the pulse of our industry, pick up on trends and opportunities. Without them, these days we need to rely on our experience and listen even more carefully to what customers are telling us to better anticipate and meet their needs.
But even now the direction of travel can be discerned from the themes that dominated at the virtual edition of the DATE conference I took put in last month and those that dominated the most recent IP SoC conference back in December (which feels like a lifetime ago!).
I think it’s true to say that I’m not sure that in either case I could point to genuinely new themes – rather the consolidation and impending commercialization of prospects that have been around for some time.
It’s fair to say we are still a long way from peak autonomous car, certainly as far as trade shows and the press are concerned. The emphasis in Grenoble was around safety and security. From our point of view, we feel our solution can make important contributions to improving cost and time-to-market for a sector that will undoubtedly need to port a wide range of technologies and process nodes. For example, LIDAR systems currently employ costly multitudes of ICs. For the industry to scale – and to realise the $173 billion market value predicted for 2040 – will require timely, cost effective and highly integrated ADCs. This is a demand that pretty much defines the Thalia value proposition.
Yet in Grenoble, as elsewhere over the past 12 months, the overarching theme linking pretty much everything remained 5G (and, of course, autonomous vehicles are currently a strongly touted 5G use case).
After a few tough years, the steady rollout (especially in the US and Asia) of commercial 5G networks makes the semiconductor industry feel a little better about itself. The sense is that new networks based around the new radio are likely to accelerate the currently sluggish smartphone refreshment-cycle. Both Gartner and IDC predict a slight uptick in new smartphone sales in 2020 and agree 5G will be the driver.
The focus on smartphone sales is understandable but, as we have suggested elsewhere, even if a relatively limited range of the many use cases conjured to validate 5G investments come to fruition, the 5G semiconductor opportunity extends way beyond handsets. If vision becomes reality, 5G will become a cornerstone of the full digital platform. This will mark an era in which connectivity and advanced functionality will become part of every conceivable product – from trucks, trains and shipping containers to vending machines and lighting infrastructure.
Which implies a potentially exciting moment for the industry. But the to-do list that needs to be addressed to make all this happen remains fairly lengthy. And some line items are pretty basic. For example, at a network level, to get beyond current consumer data usage applications, there is an urgent need to define core base station product configurations to suit different deployment scenarios. From residential to urban, and from all-in-one to highly disaggregated and virtualized, many physical types of cell will be required to meet all the many requirements of 5G. However, this risks fragmentation, which demands establishing some baseline specifications for each major category of cell, allowing for large scale to be achieved, while leaving individual chip and system vendors the flexibility to differentiate within those frameworks.
Yet despite the challenges, the opportunity is there and Europe’s semiconductor industry needs to leverage its considerable experience and reputation for innovation to make the most of it. To this end, several presenters in Grenoble highlighted Europe’s leadership role in the development of Radio Frequency Silicon-on-Insulator (RF SOI) platforms, based on both PD-SOI and FD-SOI. RF SOI chips are used in the RF switches which help to manage a smartphone’s transmit/receive functions. As 5G evolves, PD-SOI and FD-SOI are set to become extremely important technologies , not least as potential standards for future 5G-mmWave handsets, base stations and small cells IoT. They are also recognized as enablers for new RF domains for sensors and connectivity beyond 5G.
The advantages of FD-SOI in particular are well rehearsed, delivering improved speed, reduced power and a significantly simplified manufacturing process. As I mentioned in a recent blog [add link], this attractive power/performance/cost trade-off is leading growing numbers of clients to make SOI part of their product roadmaps. In the context of the complex service/product/technology evolutions underpinning the 5G Era, SOI is already finding favour in the automotive industry (reduced cost coupled with radiation tolerance are key factors here, while strong RF and analogue performance will ensure it has an important role to play in the role out of IoT products and infrastructure.
The good news is that the home of SOI innovation is in Europe – in Grenoble, in fact, led by key players like Soitec, STMicroelectronics, CEA Leti and Dolphin who are demonstrating the potential of the RF-SOI and FD-SOI design platform to drive the development of fast growing markets like automotive, IoT and aerospace. As a member of the SOI Consortium, Thalia is committed to playing a significant role in this European ecosystem and we have already demonstrated our ability to accelerate the deployment of IP and SoC design into FD-SOI.
Here’s a link to the virtual presentation I gave at the DATE conference.
And see below my video interview with Gabrielle Saucier of Design & Reuse.