Semiconductors: Putting the Future to the Test through Collaboration
By Dr. Erik H. Volkerink, vice president and chief technology officer, Advantest Americas, Inc.
Innovation drives our business. For more than four decades, the semiconductor industry has rapidly improved chip performance in terms of integration level, cost, power, speed as well as functionality. New technologies have enabled significant innovation and value creation in existing markets, but also sparked new markets.
Automated test equipment (ATE) helps chip manufacturers to cost-effectively characterize and test new processes, to improve chip yield, and to control manufacturing challenges and costs. In essence, we leverage today’s latest technologies to develop innovative solutions that literally put the future to the test.
Due to the leadtime needed to bring solutions to market, the lifetime of these solutions and the fast pace at which semiconductor technology evolves, we sometimes need to research and develop test technologies for devices that won’t be in production for another three to five years so that we can be timely in offering the best products and services to satisfy customer needs. To extrapolate today’s state-of-the-art technologies and essentially predict future device requirements, we need to have an in-depth understanding of where semiconductor technologies and markets are headed. This requires us to be integrated into the global innovation eco-system. Only by identifying and internalizing the latest external technologies can we ensure that our technology portfolios remain on the bleeding edge and be prepared to use these technologies in innovative and potentially disruptive ways to meet the industry’s future requirements.
Forecasting the Future
The industry’s continuing quest for rapidly increasing performance per chip is enabled by geometrical scaling techniques and non-geometrical process advances (e.g., new materials) as well as new design methodologies (e.g., design for variability, multi-core). And just over the horizon, there are intriguing new technologies such as carbon-based nanoelectronics and spin-based devices that could potentially displace CMOS. However, in recent years, there have arisen various end-markets, such as mobile electronics, that demand the integration of semiconductor functions that do not necessarily scale in accordance with Moore’s Law (e.g., sensors, actuators); this trend is called “More than Moore.” Forecasting each of these diverse trends is challenging because there is no longer a single law of expected technology progress such as Moore’s Law. The task requires skillful use of technology and market analysis, especially in the case of “More than Moore.”
One particularly interesting trend is 3D TSV, which involves the accelerated integration of various heterogeneous building blocks, increased chip compactness, reduced power consumption and improved bandwidth. Of course, this raises several challenges in device testing. According to Yole Développment, the shipment volume of 3D-IC wafers will reach 10 million units in 2012. But in a recent poll at the SEMI/IEEE International Workshop on ATE: ATE Vision 2020, 70 percent of the audience expressed uncertainty regarding the ability to accurately and cost-effectively test 3D TSV devices. This disruptive technology raises unique challenges including new test access mechanisms, design-for-test techniques, high probe card pitch and pin count techniques, weak drive strength and electro-static discharge issues of op-amps, known-good-die test techniques and many more.
Our Innovation Eco-System
Cost-effective, reliable 3D TSV production is just one example of the many challenges facing today’s semiconductor industry. The expanding portfolio of challenges increases the need for capital and innovation. This results in supply-chain specialization, but also increases the importance of pre-competitive collaboration and supply chain coordination.
To offer the best solutions to customers, it is essential to stay at the forefront of technology. Close collaboration and communication among equipment suppliers, semiconductor manufacturers and other market participants have always been vital to success in our industry. This long-held axiom has become even more critical today with the advent of new device technologies. The best solutions span many fields such as probe cards, handler equipment, electronic design automation (design for test and built-in self-test), test data management, adaptive test and yield-learning software. Industry standards play a major role in identifying and maximizing potential economies of scale in production, shortening time-to-market, and improving the overall supply chain, especially in the case of new technologies.
For example, as mentioned earlier, today’s 3D TSV devices often involve contributions from companies throughout the supply chain. In some cases, the memory modules may come from one semiconductor maker while the microprocessor is supplied by another company, and final test and assembly might be performed by yet another company.
The types of companies that populate our industry are diverse. But we share the common need to work together if we are to understand the future, to apply the latest technologies in solving challenges and to keep the semiconductor technology cycle of innovation progressing for another four decades!
Dr. Erik H. Volkerink is vice president of Global Technology, Research and Innovation and chief technology officer of Advantest Americas, Inc. He chairs the cost of test section of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) and founded IEEE ATEVision 2020, the premier workshop in the area of Automated Test Equipment. He served as a consulting professor at Stanford University in the Electrical Engineering department and as a chair of the IEEE International Test Conference. He earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University and his MBA from Wharton Business School.
June 5, 2012