Soitec, the industry’s leading supplier of SOI wafers recently announced it’s in high-volume manufacturing of a 300mm version of its wildly successful RFeSI line (see press release here).
What’s it all about? FEMs. RF front-end module – aka FEM – chips handle the back-and-forth of signals between the transceiver and the antenna. FEMs built on advanced SOI wafers are found in virtually every smartphone. Until now, the starting SOI wafers for all those RF FEMs were 200mm in diameter. But with demand continuing to increase, and the RF-SOI prospects for 4G/LTE-A (and then 5G) being very bright indeed, the bigger wafers were needed.
(Bear in mind that these RF-SOI wafers are not at all the same kind of wafers used in the RF and analog parts of an FD-SOI SOC. But because there’s still a fair amount of confusion about this, my ASN post, RF-SOI vs. FD-SOI with RF – What’s the difference? from a few months back sorted it out. If you missed it or you’d like a quick refresher, click here to read it.)
So, back to this announcement about the 300mm version of the RFeSI substrates. As the SOI wafer leader, Soitec’s got a lot of proprietary manufacturing technologies, and a boatload of experience with 200mm RF-SOI. High-volume manufacturing of 300mm SOI wafers isn’t new to them, either, since they’ve been doing that for over a decade.
But latest additions to the line, the advanced RFeSI90 wafers, required some really significant innovations. Soitec teamed up with UCL (you can read about that here) a few years ago on a breakthrough approach to SOI wafers for RF. This has opened the door for new enhancements that enable more highly integrated ICs for 4G/LTE-Advanced communications and the next generation of wireless technologies, including 5G.
It so happens that the RFeSI 300mm wafer announcement comes just as Soitec reports that they’ve sold over a million 200mm RF-SOI wafers since 2009. Those million RF-SOI wafers have yielded about 20 billion FEMs. That means Soitec’s RF-SOI substrates are now integral in manufacturing antenna switches, antenna tuners, as well as some power amplifiers and WiFi circuits for the smart phone and related mobile markets. In fact they’re used by all the leading RF semiconductor companies to address cost, performance and integration needs for 3G and 4G/LTE mobile wireless.
Bernard Aspar, Sr. VP of Soitec’s Communication & Power Business Unit, is particularly pleased with their RF success. “The widespread use of Soitec’s materials technology in existing 3G and 4G portable communications demonstrates the important role of RF-SOI in high-volume, cost-sensitive applications such as cellular phones, tablets and other fast-growing markets involving mobile internet devices,” he said. “Now the high-volume availability of our newest 300mm RF-SOI offering enables our customers and their customers to continue to deliver higher performance while giving them access to foundries’ larger global production capacities and more manufacturing flexibility.”
To be sure, 200mm is still going strong and stronger, so Soitec is also increasing its 200mm production capacity. What’s more, last fall Soitec teamed up on a 200mm wafer manufacturing deal with Shanghai-based Simgui, which uses Soitec’s Smart CutTM technology to produce SOI wafers for its own RF, power and automotive customers in China, as well as manufacturing on an OEM basis for Soitec customers worldwide (read about that here).
Meanwhile, over the past 18 months Soitec has been delivering 300mm RFeSI90 wafer samples for product qualification. They note that key partnerships with fabless semiconductor companies and foundries have been instrumental in achieving the production milestones and outstanding performance levels of Soitec’s new 300mm RF-SOI product. In fact to make sure that customers get the performance they need, last year Soitec engineers even developed a way to predict the performance their wafers would provide (if you missed it, you can read more about that here).
To find out why some of the leading foundries and chipmakers have chosen to go with a 300mm RF-SOI wafer solution, and what’s in the RF-SOI substrate innovation pipeline, click here to read part 2 of this article.
Shanghai-based Simgui has produced the company’s first 200mm SOI wafers based on Soitec‘s Smart CutTM manufacturing technology (read the press release here). Samples will be going to customers in the coming weeks for qualification, with high-volume ramp planned for early 2016. Simgui will be selling the wafers directly to its own customers in China, and manufacturing on an OEM basis for Soitec customers worldwide. This includes manufacturing Soitec’s fabulously successful RFeSI90 substrates for LTE-A, 5G and Gigabit Wi-Fi in smartphones and other devices (read about those here), substantially increasing worldwide capacity to meet the recent rapid rise in demand.
While overall worldwide 200mm wafer demand (including bulk and epi) has slipped a bit over the last year (they’re now accounting for a little over a quarter of all wafer sales), demand is increasing for certain types of 200mm SOI wafers. What’s driving it? RF and smart power (both of which are seeing big opps in automotive). SOI wafer leader Soitec, for example, is seeing an uptick of 20% in 200mm SOI wafers for smart power for automotive. RF is growing even faster.
The thick and thin of it
What’s different about these 200mm SOI wafers? It’s a question of layer thickness, quality and the manufacturing technology used to make them. Simgui and many others have been producing very “thick” 200mm SOI wafers for years. Traditionally in “thick” SOI (which has been used in things like power, aerospace, automotive, MEMS and sensors for decades), the top silicon might be up to anywhere from 2 µm to 300 µm thick, with an insulating box layer in the range of 3 µm (sometimes much more). But new apps in smart power and RF, for example, need a very high quality top silicon layer that might be as thin as 0.145µm for power*, or under 0.1µm for RF. The insulating layer also needs to be far thinner, and the bottom supporting layer also has to fulfill specific, advanced parameters.
(Bear in mind that these wafers for RF and smart power are still relatively thick compared to what you need for FD-SOI, for example, which is considered “ultra-thin”, and has ultra-uniform top silicon with a thickness in the range of 10-20 nm (0.01 – 0.02µm).)
There are several different manufacturing approaches to fabricating SOI wafers. To make the SOI wafers needed for new markets in smart power and RF, Simgui has opted to use Soitec’s Smart Cut technology (which is well-explained here). Smart Cut’s especially good for producing very high-quality wafers, with a thin and very uniform top layer of silicon and a thin layer of insulating buried oxide (BOx).
The new deal
Simgui is a high-tech company in Shanghai focused on supplying SOI wafers and providing foundry services for epi wafers. It was spun off from the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology (SIMIT) within the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and now is a joint venture with a group of investors from Silicon Valley. Both its SOI and epi businesses are growing dramatically.
With a surge in demand for leading-edge thick 200mm SOI wafers, Simgui partnered with Soitec, the industry’s SOI wafer leader, back in May 2014 (see that press release here).
The May 2014 deal was a licensing and technology transfer agreement under which Simgui would manufacture Soitec’s 200-mm SOI wafers using Soitec’s proprietary Smart Cut™ technology. The news now is that it’s actually happened. Simgui has established a high-volume SOI manufacturing line to directly supply the Chinese market. In addition, Simgui will manufacture Soitec’s 200 mm SOI wafers for the global market outside China, expanding Soitec’s supply to customers worldwide in the growing RF and power markets. Beyond this initial cooperation, the two companies are expanding their collaborative efforts in the future to take advantage of their synergies.
China markets and beyond
Roughly a third of the fabs in China are 200mm (see SEMI’s map below). As recently noted by IC Insights, “Fabs running 200mm wafers will continue to be profitable for many more years and be used to fabricate numerous types of ICs, such as specialty memories, image sensors, display drivers, microcontrollers, analog products, and MEMS-based devices.”
The Soitec-Simgui partnership addresses two key areas: 1. China’s growing demand and 2. the need for an increase in worldwide production capacity for 200-mm SOI wafers used in fabricating semiconductors for RF and power applications. It’s also seen as a key element in establishing an SOI ecosystem in China.
Dr. Xi Wang, chairman of the board of directors of Simgui, notes that, “China is a hot spot for the IC industry today. The fast growth of China’s mobile devices demands a large number of SOI wafers. Through the collaboration with Soitec, Simgui has successfully demonstrated a strong technical ability and expanded capacity to meet our customers’ needs. In addition to the planned high-volume manufacturing of SOI wafers, we will continue to promote the SOI ecosystem in China and build a globally influential Chinese silicon industry.”
It’s also good news for Soitec’s 200mm SOI customers. “We are very pleased to have reached this major milestone with Simgui, which now has the capability to manufacture Soitec’s SOI products using our Smart Cut technology. This represents a key step in our commitment to increase capacity in response to the needs of our customers who serve the fast-growing RF and power markets, both in China and worldwide,” said Paul Boudre, CEO and chairman of the board of Soitec.
Which explains why the two companies see it as a win-win situation.
Under a new agreement, Simgui now has the exclusive right to promote, distribute and sell Soitec’s 200-mm SOI wafers in China (see press release in English here; Chinese version here). Soitec is the world’s leading producer of SOI wafers. Shanghai Simgui Technology Co., Ltd. (Simgui), a Shanghai-based semiconductor materials company, is a spinoff of the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology (SIMIT/CAS).
Available in different product families, the 200mm SOI wafers are used in chips such as RF ICs broadly used in smartphones and power ICs for automotive applications. This agreement, which follows a previous licensing and manufacturing partnership between the two companies, represents another key step in establishing a Chinese SOI ecosystem while also strengthening Soitec’s presence in this double-digit-growth semiconductor market.
Soitec and Simgui (Shanghai, China) are partnering on SOI wafer production for RF and power applications. The newly signed deal (read press release here) includes a licensing and technology transfer agreement. Simgui will establish a high-volume SOI manufacturing line using Soitec’s proprietary Smart Cut™ technology to directly supply the Chinese market. In addition, Simgui will manufacture Soitec’s 200 mm SOI wafers for the global market outside China, expanding Soitec’s supply to customers worldwide. Beyond this initial cooperation, the two companies plan to expand their collaborative efforts in the future to take advantage of their synergies.