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.
EDI CON China 2016, taking place April 19-21 in Beijing at the China National Convention Center (CNCC) will feature a keynote talk by GlobalFoundries‘ Peter Rabbeni, Sr. Director, RF BU Business Development & Product Marketing. The talk, entitled, “RF SOI: Revolutionizing Radio Design Today and Driving Innovation for Tomorrow”, will kick off the newly added RF-SOI Technology Track. The SOI Track will also feature talks and workshops from Peregrine Semiconductor, TowerJazz, Simgui, AnalogSmith and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The talks will cover substrate engineering, design enablement, CMOS power amplifier design techniques and highly integrated control devices.
Mr. Rabbeni’s keynote talk will cover how there has been dramatic growth in RF SOI over the last several years in its continued march in driving performance improvement, cost reduction and architecture innovation between the transceiver and the antenna in mobile radios. No other radio technology in recent memory has had the impact that RF SOI has had in this respect. With standards becoming increasingly more challenging and the pending introduction of 5G, RF SOI is expected to continue to play an important role in the development of innovative architectures. His presentation will explore where we have been, why and where we may be headed with this technology. Substrate engineering and SOI device technology is reviewed in detail in Microwave Journal’s October 2015 cover story at http://www.microwavejournal.com/articles/25255.
More information is available at www.ediconchina.com.
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.
Semicon China (Shanghai, 17-21 March 2015) was an awe-inspiring event. The sheer size and the energy were dazzling. But it was the investment plans prompted by the government’s injection of RMB 120 billion (US$19.6 billion) last fall in seed money for the industry with supporting local funds pouring in that was clearly the source of a lot of adrenalin and M&A talk.
China’s industry is in high gear, still posting double-digit growth. But here’s the rub: while China consumes about half of the world’s roughly US$ $350 billion in chips (2015, WSTS), fabs in China only account for 2.5% of worldwide revenue. They’d like to see that change in a big way, and fast.
Hence Beijing’s IC Investment Fund, which is expected to continue to be expanded. SEMI estimates that the total government (central plus local) funds will reach US$100 billion, plus it’s prompting the creation and growth of additional local government and industry funds. (Dr. Adam He at SEMI has done an excellent job explaining Beijing’s investment strategy – you can see his summary here.) New VC funds are popping up everywhere, and existing ones are being augmented.
Which is why everybody was calling it the best time the industry’s ever seen. In his talk, Handel Jones of IBS, called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
This should represent significant opportunities for the SOI ecosystem in China. China foundries are offering RF-SOI already (click here to read about the Shanghai RF-SOI Workshop). And it is worth noting that China’s R&D institutes have deep expertise in all things SOI.
FD-SOI is an important topic (click here to see an ASN piece on FD-SOI by a professor at a top Beijing institute from last year, and here for more about the recent Shanghai FD-SOI workshop). China’s designers are hot on FD-SOI, too. (Did you hear about how the Beijing cryptocurrency mining hardware company SFARDS is preparing to release its debut miner, which is built on a 28nm FD-SOI ASIC, by April 2015? Read about it here.)
SOI-based MEMS, power, and sensors products are also already produced in China’s foundries. In fact SOI was a strategic focus by key institutes like SIMIT under the national “Innovation 2020” 5-year plan launched in 2010.
In terms of SOI wafers, China’s wafer leader, Simgui also works closely with Soitec, the world’s SOI wafer leader. Not surprisingly, theirs was a busy stand at Semicon China.
The Hot Topic: M&A
During the keynotes and industry sessions, M&A were central themes, as China looks beyond its borders for expertise. Hardly a talk went by that didn’t touch on this topic, all emphasizing that 1 + 1 > 2, and hammering home the importance of holding on to top talent in takeover scenarios. With each new slide, a sea of smartphones raised above the crowd to capture the onscreen tips.
In fact, with the IC Investment Fund taking center stage, the head of China Merger & Acquisition at Goldman Sachs gave the audience a primer on the M&A process. China, he noted, is now number two for M&A worldwide, just behind the US. While in the past the activity was “inbound”, China’s companies are now active on a transnational scale. This year will be an M&A record breaker for the semiconductor industry in China.
China’s expats are returning in droves from abroad, founding new companies. New industrial parks like the one out by the Shanghai airport are attracting major investors.
Big Show, Small World
This was the biggest Semicon ever, with 2750 booths covering 57,000m2 (over 600,000 sq. ft – more than three times the size of West) and over 50,000 visitors (almost twice what they got at West+Intersolar last year).
But Semicon China also had its small-world moments that show just how far SOI is reaching. Consider this. I was on the metro in Shanghai, heading over to Semicon, reading the show program. The guy next to me asked a question about the show (he was heading there, too), and we got to chatting.
It turns out he’s the founder of Trinamic, a German company that designs chips for motion control. They have just started an SOI project with X-fab as the foundry. He’s very clear and enthusiastic about what he expects SOI to do for them. It’s for a high-volume app in small, precision motor control for things like video surveillance cameras.
This is an encouraging indication of just how far the SOI ecosystem is reaching! (We have an interview coming up with the folks at X-fab, btw, so keep an eye out for that.)
We’ll also have lots more from China, including interviews and profiles of the institutes and companies that are major players in the SOI ecosystem there. It’s truly an incredible place to be right now.
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.