Semiconductor Trends for 2023: Thin Film Integrated Circuits and Beyond

December 16, 2022by John Gaskins

Our world runs on semiconductors, a fact that became all the more apparent during the chip shortage of the past several years. Accelerating global demand growth for semiconductor devices is driving booming sales, with strong growth likely to persist into the foreseeable future. McKinsey forecasts 6 to 8% growth for the remainder of the decade, adding up to a $1 trillion industry by 2030. In this blog, we survey some of the top trends shaping this dynamic industry heading into 2023.

Trend One: Investing in More Robust Supply Chains and Domestic Manufacturing Capacity

While the worst of the COVID-era chip shortage may be behind us, supply chains continue to be stretched thin. Automotive and electronics manufacturers alike have run directly into the limitations of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity. Insufficient manufacturing capacity can be a source of substantial economic drag for other sectors. Deloitte estimates that the chip shortage of the past two years “resulted in revenue misses of more than US$500 billion worldwide between the semiconductor and its customer industries, with lost auto sales of more than US$210 billion in 2021 alone.” 

Coupled with geopolitical tensions that create further risks to supply chains, these concerns have fueled a new focus on bolstering domestic U.S. manufacturing capabilities for semiconductors. The CHIPS Act and Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provide substantial policy incentives for investing in new chip manufacturing facilities in the United States, and we are already witnessing a surge in activity. We take a deeper look at some essential capabilities for improving semiconductor manufacturing capacity in the United States in our whitepaper here.

Trend Two: Improved Sustainability in Semiconductor Manufacturing

Semiconductor manufacturing is energy- and water-intensive. A single semiconductor manufacturing facility can consume around 1 TWh of energy annually, with water consumption over 19 million liters per day. As new domestic manufacturing capacity grows, semiconductor manufacturers are increasingly looking for opportunities to mitigate this environmental impact. Intel, for example, has established 2030 sustainability goals that include net positive water use, 4 billion kWh in energy conservation, and 100% renewable energy. Applied Materials is also aiming to switch to 100% renewables globally by 2030, with TSMC setting a deadline of 2050. 

Trend Three: A Growing Market for Thin Film Solar Panels

While integrated circuits remain the foremost market for thin film semiconductors, additional applications such as thin film solar panels are becoming increasingly mainstream. Thin film solar cells are manufactured by depositing thin films of photovoltaic semiconductor material onto a substrate made from plastic, glass, or metal.

First Solar recently announced plans to invest $270 million in a new thin film solar R&D facility in Ohio, the first of its scale in the United States, and the pace of investment appears set to accelerate for the foreseeable future. Compared to the most widespread solar generation technology (crystalline silicon cells), thin film panels offer a reduced physical footprint, greater structural flexibility, and reduced weight, but higher costs on a per-watt basis. Thin film panels are benefitting from steady efficiency gains, however, and increasingly becoming an economical choice in certain applications, like architectural and automotive panels. We take a deeper look at this topic in our article here.

Trend Four: Shifts in Chip Architecture Are Changing the Competitive Structure of the Industry

After years of dominance by the x86 architecture, Arm-based chips (traditionally designed specifically for low-power applications) have become increasingly performant and economical across a range of more demanding applications. Google and Amazon have both opted for custom Arm-based chips in their data centers due to power efficiency advantages, while Apple is transitioning its full consumer product lineup to an Arm-based architecture (Arm chips have traditionally been used only in Apple’s mobile devices). Proliferating IoT devices will only increase the demand for small, highly efficient chips.

Beyond advances in the efficiency of electronic devices themselves, this shift has important implications for the structure of the semiconductor market looking forward. While the x86 architecture is only available through a limited set of licensed vendors, Arm licenses their platform more freely, giving more businesses the flexibility to design and source custom chips without needing to scale up their own fabrication facility. 

Trend Five: Enhanced Thermal Metrology for Thin Films

All semiconductor devices generate heat, and more efficient, accurate thermal testing processes play an important role in improving the yield and efficiency of the semiconductor manufacturing process. The earlier that defective chips or sub-standard materials can be identified, the more time and money can be saved. 

The thin film materials used in semiconductor devices, however, introduce substantial challenges for traditional thermal testing methodologies. Traditional techniques cannot dependably provide exact measurements of thermal resistances on the length scales needed for semiconductor chips, nor meet the integration and throughput constraints necessary for integration into the semiconductor testing market. We take a deeper look at thermal metrology in semiconductor manufacturing in our blog here.

Novel techniques like Steady-State Thermoreflectance in Fiber Optics (SSTR-F) will play an important role in helping semiconductor manufacturers address these challenges. This approach works by utilizing a laser to create a nano-to-microscale heating event on the surface of a sample, resulting in a steady-state temperature gradient in the sample. A secondary probe laser is then used to measure the temperature on the surface of the sample, which is driven by different steady-state temperature gradients established by varying pump powers. The spot laser used in this process can be tuned to be as small as a few microns 1/e2 diameter, which, given the nanoscale localized absorption of the laser, enables SSTR-F to be used effectively to measure in-plane and through-plane (cross-plane) thermal resistances—even for nanometer-scale thin films and atomically thin interfaces. 

SSTR-F can provide accurate (+/- 10 %), repeatable (+/- 0.5 %) and reproducible (+/- 1.0 %) thermal conductivity measurements. This approach also has the ability to provide automated, high-throughput measurements, capable of keeping with the massive volumes of testing required by the ever-growing semiconductor industry. You can learn more about this technique in our video playlist here. Or, if you have more specific questions, please reach out to our team using the button below.

John Gaskins

As Co-Founder and CEO of Laser Thermal, John has conducted research characterizing the mechanical, optical and thermal properties of materials for almost two decades. John received his Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from the University of Virginia in 2013.  His work developed methodologies for testing the size dependent properties in thin film structures.  After his Ph.D. John joined Patrick Hopkins’ group extending his Ph.D. work focused on mechanical property characterization to optical and thermal properties. John is leading Laser Thermal’s development of SSTR-F to provide accessible small-scale thermal conductivity measurements to industrial and academic partners.