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A Close Look at Major Microelectronics Challenges

To address the shortage of semi-conductors which continues to impact many sectors, including the automotive industry, and meet the growing need for electronic components, its production capacities must significantly increase. This includes Europe, as it is highly dependent on Asia and the USA, where issues around competitiveness, reindustrialization, and securing electronic chip supplies are major. What actions can be made in Europe? What are the strengths of European microelectronics stakeholders? Sébastien Dauvé, CEA-Leti CEO offers some insights. 

Published on 7 July 2022

​Why does the microelectronics industry occupy such a crucial place? How has the industry become central to the digital transformation of our society?

Today, electronic components can be found in everyday life, from energy production to agriculture, health, and safety. They are in cars, telecommunications, computers, appliances, medical devices, toys, TVs, industrial automation, etc. These components, a vast majority of which come from semi-conductors, are used to measure, store, and send information, produce data, or control remotely. Without these components, there can be no digital technology. For example, designing smartphones would be impossible, since they require 500 to 600 components! For the past several years, these underlying trends around uses have been fostering a high demand for electronic components.

Along with this, the digital boom was amplified by the brutal evolution of uses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, including working from home. The global market for electronic components currently weighs between 500 and 600 billion dollars worldwide, and is due to double by 2030. It serves a much broader digital market.

The global market for semi-conductors as we know it today was shaped over a 30 to 40-year period. Every country or continent is vital in specific areas: Taiwan and Korea handle advanced technological generations (nodes), the rare earth industry in China, Japan for wafers and process gas, the US deals with complex integrated circuit tools and designs, controlling social networks and the web, and advanced lithography and advanced substrates such as SOI wafers in Europe… Value chains are therefore highly interrelated: everyone needs everyone else; there is no such thing as a component or an electronic device made from A to Z in a single country. For example, designing and manufacturing a smartphone involves several laps around the world.

As the health crisis highlighted, the global economy has therefore become dependent on these components: a single missing component is enough to block various production chains. Since 2020, we've noticed an increased demand for components stemming from accelerated digitalization, amplified by the Covid-19 crisis. The amplification caused a major crisis, including in the automotive sector, with a shortage of semi-conductors triggered by the breakdown of global provisioning and logistical chains. According to analysts, the semi-conductor shortage is expected to last until 2023/2024.

In order to address current supply problems and respond to the growing demand for components, the global microelectronics industry is dramatically increasing production capacities. Around the world, in countries involved in microelectronics, including Asia (Korea and Japan), Europe, and especially the United States, manufacturing facilities are being built. It should take approximately two years before they are fully operational. By 2025, the production capacity for wafers is expected to increase by nearly 50%.


Why has the microelectronics industry become a matter of sovereignty?

Supply shortages have given rise to questions of sovereignty around the production of these components. Decision makers are keen to get back on their feet in a sector which has been neglected by Europe. Europe will only represent 8% to 9% of the production of electronic components by the end of 2022. This proportion has been dropping steadily for the past thirty years. The United States' share is barely higher, with only 10% to 12% currently. Today, Asia produces most electronic chips, with key companies such as Samsung (South Korea), SK Hynix (South Korea), and TSMC (Taiwan). This region concentrates 80% of the world production, and manufactures the latest technological generations –100% of 7 nm nodes and under. As a result, Europe depends on Asia for manufacturing chips, and on the United States for designing them.

This is what has led to the emergence to Chips Act both in the United States and in Europe. The European Chips Act was presented on February 8th to regain Europe's sovereignty over these components by doubling its share of the world market (from 8% to 20%) by 2030. As part of his France 2030 plan late 2021, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France would invest 6 billion euros to support projects that will double the country's electronic production.

Doubling Europe's chip production will involve a major R&D effort to stay competitive in terms of costs, performance, and energy consumption. The semi-conductor industry is therefore investing 15% to 20% of its turnover in R&D each year.

It will also be essential to ensure that transitions between R&D and effective electronic chip production become more seamless. The main ambition of the Chips Act is therefore to create three major drivers. Objectives Being imagining future chips and be capable of producing them in Europe. Increasing the European production capacity would secure part of its chip supply and play a key role in the international balance of power.

The aim of increasing and securing Europe's electronic chip production will only be achieved if we also solve other industry shortages, such as chemicals, silicon, special gases, or stainless steel subassemblies. And if we heavily invest on training future electronic engineers, as the stakes in terms of expertise and human resources are so high.

Another key factor for sovereignty will be to attract partners who will produce in Europe in the future. This is the case for Intel (USA), who will be setting up two mega-factories in Magdeburg, Germany.

All these initiatives will take several years. With regard to the European Chips Act, we hope to have concrete measures by late 2023. It takes 18 to 24 months to expand capacities in an existing factory, and nearly four years to start operating a new production site. Several years are required to improve existing technology, and sometimes 15 to 20 years for a technological breakthrough, from new materials or concepts to industrial products, involving strong contingencies, since not all breakthroughs find a market. There is therefore an urgent need for action. 

Where does CEA-Leti stand with regard to the European Chips Act?

CEA-Leti supports the idea of creating three major drivers. One of the major drivers we have proposed would involve working on a technology that emerged in Europe, in our institute, FD-SOI. It is used to produce transistors, small switches that are indispensable to integrated electronic circuits and constituting the smallest processor value unit. Because it provides optimized energy consumption (with an energy saving of 30% compared to other technologies), FD-SOI is extremely interesting for 'embedded' markets, meaning electronics found in connected objects, autonomous cars, nomadic electronics, etc. Millions of connected loudspeakers or GPS microchips are now fitted with it. FD-SOI is also fueling smartphones, such as Google's latest pixel 6 Pro. Industrialized by STMicroelectronics, it is also sold by big companies such as Samsung and GlobalFoundries.  FD-SOI is currently produced in 28 nm and 22 nm and will soon be available in 18 nm. To further improve the performance and energy efficiency of FD-SOI, the goal is now to move toward new electronic engineering technology, with ever-smaller 10-nanometer nodes that will meet low consumption market needs in 5 to 7 years. This miniaturization involves a major technological leap. Secondly (by 2026–2030), we will be focusing on GAA technology (Gate-All-Around, including a gate around the conduction channel) with nodes typically around 5 nm. One could say we've invented this technology (first publications in 2006 and first patent filed by CEA-Leti), which will constitute a breakthrough. The second major driver, supported by Imec, the Flemish Interuniversity Microelectronics Center, will be devoted to advanced generation FinFET chips — with nodes equal or less than 2 nm — which use the most advanced lithography techniques (Extreme UV) with equipment that will later be produced by Dutch world leader ASML. The third major driver, generated by the Fraunhofer Institute, in Germany, involves assembly and packaging, which will bring challenges in years to come.

Naturally, we will all need to work together, and we are in regular contact with both Imec and the Fraunhofer.

More Moore vs. More Than Moore: What avenue is being supported by Europe?

The world of microelectronics and semi-conductors is organized into two major families.

The first involves highly advanced electronics and producing ever-smaller high-performance transistors for supercomputing (CPU and GPU), to make them perform better and more energy-efficient. We call this the "More Moore" family. Designing highly advanced nodes — currently 5-nanometer nodes — is rooted in Moore's law, formulated in 1965 by Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel. It says that progress in the semi-conductor industry leads to doubling the number of transistors on a single circuit surface every 18 months at a consistent cost price. Yet Europe no longer has foundries capable of producing a technology that requires considerable investment, apart from that used to manufacture node-producing equipment. Currently, only two companies in the world manufacture the most sophisticated processors and memories found in smartphones, computers, data centers, and tablets: Samsung and TSMC. All the other companies, including European ones, have given up on More Moore due to colossal investment costs, rising to approximately 250 million euros per unit for advanced lithography equipment and to an investment of nearly USD20Bn for the most advanced foundries, capable of producing 5 nm technology — producing about 1 million wafers a year.

 "More than Moore" is the second family. It refers to technologies involving imagers, sensors, screen LEDs, high frequency for 5G telecoms, or power electronics on less advanced nodes (~ several dozen nanometers, or even higher than a micrometer). These chips are essential for many embedded intelligence applications and are complementary to ultra-miniature "More Moore" chips. For example, cell phones and cars include numerous sensors. At CEA-Leti, we have been adopting a "More than Moore" position for more than 20 years, much like other European microelectronics leaders, including the French-Italian STMicroelectronics, the Dutch NXP, and the German Infineon. Europe consequently represents 40% of the "More than Moore" market. Moreover, it includes several champions, such as Soitec, the world leader in SOI substrates found in the radiofrequency components of every smartphone on the planet.


How is CEA supporting and stimulating innovation? What is CEA-Leti's added value?

Since the CEA-Leti Institute was founded in 1967 in Grenoble, CEA has been a real cornerstone of French microelectronics. It has now become a world-leading Research and Technology Organization (RTO). Overall, not many Research and Technology Organizations are able to firmly support industrial partners in their R&D. CEA-Leti, the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, Imec in Belgium, Albany NanoTech in the United States, and ITRI in Taiwan all do.  CEA is the only European stakeholder found in the 2021 European Patent Organization's Top 5 ranking for semi-conductors. When supply issues appeared and the importance of electronic components became clear to everyone, we were approached on all sides to provide expertise and ambitious solutions aimed at regaining sovereignty.

Naturally, we add value through our R&D, but also through our strong connection with the industrial world, to which we provide knowledge, prototypes, and patents. 

We have strong expertise in electronics, with multidisciplinary teams of the highest international level that are highly motivated in serving industrial partners. New American partners in Grenoble recently told us that they had never seen such a wide-ranging concentration of equipment and expertise in a single place before! We own unique electronic equipment, such as clean rooms in which prototypes are produced and later tested by our partners. Owning and mastering such sophisticated equipment is a genuine asset.

We also support our industrial partners through direct collaborations aimed at understanding their current needs and imagining their future needs in order to develop bespoke projects that will evolve over time. Another way of supporting industrial partners is through creating startups: since 1967, we have founded more than 75 startups, 75% of which are still in business. This is the case of Soitec, which has since become an industrial champion. We also support startups in application fields such as health.

When I joined CEA-Leti twenty years ago, as an Innovation Project Manager in defense and security, I was genuinely impressed by its incredible buzz, intelligence, and creativity, along with its industrial and academic ecosystem. Over the course of 20 years, we have covered considerable ground; no two years have been the same. We are involved in inspiring projects every year, spurred on by the fast-changing world of microelectronics. Amongst CEA-Leti's major innovations, we have SOI components, found in every smartphone, imagers in a range of wavelengths (STMicroelectronics and Lynred), micro-screens passed on to Microled, American tech giants, and many more sensor technologies or wireless connectivity solutions.

We are also focusing on more sustainable electronics, mobilizing our teams for improved hardware energy efficiency, new generations of algorithms that consume fewer data, optimized data management, establishing eco-design approaches to connected systems with manufacturing processes that require fewer critical materials and resources. One of our priority goals will be to divide the power consumption of processing by 1,000 by 2030.

We are also looking into application challenges of markets that require new technologies, such as imagers, photonics, telecoms and 5G technology, power components, health, cybersecurity, alongside research on embedded artificial intelligence, spintronics, and quantum computing. A world of fascinating projects and challenges for the benefit of society, industry, and competitiveness. Our younger generations are steeped in expertise and infinite possibilities: I want to invite them to be very ambitious and bold in their approach to technological challenges. Our many tools will support their progress and later transform them into industrial realities.

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