The era of ‘Things’ is coming and our industry is enabling it

In today’s connected world, semiconductor chips can help save energy in a smart thermostat for your home, are helping you drive your car, and can reliably monitor your heart rate with your watch. The ‘Internet of Things’ is expected to connect anywhere from 50 to 200 billion such devices by 2020. Toni Mesquida Küsters (Senior Director Product Marketing DUV at ASML) explains how these new applications of chip technology are enabled by mature lithography systems.

By Sander Hofman

The legendary inventor Nikola Tesla might have predicted the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) in 1926 when he said, “When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole.”

The world is certainly more connected than ever before. In 2011, the total number of connected devices had already overtaken the global human population. In 2015, the internet traffic from wireless devices surpassed that of wired devices. And while you’re reading this article, some 40,000 new devices with all kinds of purposes will connect to the internet for the first time.

That growing number of connected devices and the sheer amount of data that they produce, makes IoT a red hot trend with vast economic potential. A report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that IoT could have an annual economic impact of up to $11.1 trillion by 2025 across various settings, such as factories, cities, automotive and health.

There’s a chip for every thing

At the heart of it all is a tiny device with great power: the semiconductor chip. Over the last decades, the semiconductor industry has innovated across a wide range of chip types to improve performance and reduce cost. While the most advanced chips are powering high-end electronics and digital developments, simpler, low cost chips are finding a new market, at the heart of IoT.

Toni Mesquida Küsters (Senior Director Product Marketing DUV at ASML): “IoT drives both mature- and leading-edge lithography demand”

“Crucially, mass production has steadily reduced chip prices across the board,” says Toni. “We’ve entered an era in which it makes economic sense to integrate low cost chips in all kinds of products, making them a lot smarter at little extra cost.”

The smallest feature sizes on the lowest-cost chips are several hundred nanometers across, compared to just ten nanometers on the most advanced chips. But these chips are able to provide the functionality needed in connected devices. As a result we’re seeing a resurgence in chip factories (also known as ‘fabs’) using older lithography systems that make chips on 200 mm silicon wafers.

The fab that made a comeback

“With the increasing demand for IoT chips, the industry sees 200 mm fabs boosting their output to levels we haven’t seen in a decade”, says Antonio. “The global semiconductor industry association SEMI expects that fabs will beat their 2007 record capacity of 5.7 million wafers per month by 2020.”

You could almost forget that a decade ago, the fate of 200 mm fabs seemed sealed. “When the economic downturn of 2007 hit the market, 200 mm capacity was already slumping to give way to the more advanced 300 mm fabs,” says Toni. “Larger wafers allowed chipmakers to put significantly more chips on them, dramatically reducing the cost of each chip.”

But the tide has turned: an industry SEMI report notes that worldwide there are 188 fabs with 200 mm technology in production in 2016, with expansion plans to 197 fabs by 2021. The 200 mm market is truly resurrecting. The question is: will the added capacity boost be enough to meet the IoT demand?

Chipmakers building new 200 mm fabs are mostly in Asia, with China leading the pack. For chipmakers with older 200 mm fabs, boosting output means upgrading the lithography equipment within.

Many 200 mm fabs are relying on ASML’s mature lithography machines — the PAS 5500 and TWINSCAN XT lines. The PAS was introduced in the 1990s and is no longer made as new (only refurbished), but demand has prompted us to extend our service of them to 2030, as well as to offer major upgrades for improved productivity and reliability. Chipmakers building new fabs look to the more versatile TWINSCAN XT line, which can be tweaked to handle either 200 mm or 300 mm wafers. For other chipmakers, it could make sense to replace multiple older PAS systems with a single new XT system, giving the fab output a much needed boost while using less fab space to do it.

ASML’s PAS 5500 (left) and TWINSCAN XT

It’s all about the zetabytes

The IoT trend is also resonating across other parts of the semiconductor industry. The growing number of connected devices in the market generates huge amounts of data that needs to be stored and crunched. Last year’s IDC Digital Universe estimated that the amount of data created in the world annually would be 180 zetabytes (that’s 180 trillion gigabytes) in 2025, up from less than 10 zetabytes in 2015.

An TWINSCAN NXE system in operation at imec’s cleanroom in Leuven, Belgium (©imec)

“To store and process such amounts of data, you need the most advanced memory and logic chips”, says Toni. For example, Intel’s 8th gen logic processors that give a 40% performance boost generation-on-generation, and the memory technology that powers our data centers, like SSD, DRAM or HBM for deep learning. Toni: “These chip technologies can be manufactured in 300 mm fabs with our state-of-the-art immersion and EUV lithography systems.”

In the end, the Internet of Things is part of a bigger cycle, which has the consumer at its heart. Toni: “The world around us is changing fast and technology is fueling that change. It is a growth cycle, resulting in more capacity for both simple and the most advanced chips. The semiconductor industry both drives and benefits from this cycle.”

Sander Hofman is a Corporate Communications Manager at ASML