According to Zvi Or-Bach, president and CEO of MonolithIC 3D Inc., 28nm will be the last process node following Moore's Law for most designs.
In late June, Rick Merritt wrote in an EETimes post:
Most foundries have yet to start buying the capital equipment needed for the 14/16 nm node, which for many will be the first to support FinFETs, says Trafas of KLA-Tencor. Gear companies hope the orders start coming in the fall...
Indeed, he says, one of the big questions many capital equipment execs will bring to this year's Semicon West event on July 7 is, "When will the 16/14 nm investments begin?"
In the same vein, Ed Sperling noted in a Semiconductor Engineering post in August:
Work is under way to improve energy efficiency and boost performance without relying on multi-patterning or finFETs.
As the price of shrinking features increases below 28nm, there has been a corresponding push to create new designs at established nodes using everything from near-threshold computing to back biasing and mostly accurate analog sensors.
Samuel Wang, an analyst with Gartner, told Mark Lapedus for another Semiconductor Engineering post a week later:
Short-term, during the first two years of finFET production, there is no need for more than 50,000 wafers a month capacity from all foundries to satisfy the market demand for finFETs. In the long run and before 2018, there is no need to have more than 250K wafers a month capacity to support the market demand for finFETs.
The EDA industry is also recognizing this paradigm shift. In his keynote to the 2014 Synopsys User Group, Dr. Aart de Geus acknowledged this shift with a series of slides articulating how EDA tools that were developed to support the new technology nodes could also benefit design efforts using old nodes.
The IP industry is recognizing this paradigm shift as well, as illustrated in an Ann Steffora Mutschler post on Semiconductor Engineering:
As SoC developers shift backward to established nodes, steps can be taken to improve the IP's functionality.
Driven by the IoT and wearable market opportunity, SoC developers are shifting backward to established nodes, and what is learned at the leading-edge nodes is being leveraged in reverse as IP is ported backward to improve functionality.
There also a clear effort to add value and innovation to older nodes by incorporating technology such as SOI and low Vt, known as sub-threshold designs. Most notable was the recent Samsung announcement of licensing FD-SOI from ST Micro for the established node of 28 nm. Some quotes from the articles above illustrate this trend.
- Krishna Balachandran, product marketing director for low power at Cadence, says: "Threshold voltage manipulation like forward biasing has been selectively used to speed up critical portions of the IP at the expense of increased leakage that is restricted to those sections of the IP without significant overall impact."
- ARM Fellow Rob Aitken said energy savings are significant using the same exact processors differently. Moreover, it's most effective at established process geometries where there are no finFETs. But it isn't a simple process. "We can get 4X to 6X improvements in energy," he said. "That doesn't come for free, because we have to make some design changes to allow the design to operate down at this low energy point. But if we do this wrong, the overhead we have to add to get these savings is more than you get in terms of a benefit." (For a deeper understanding of this subject, click here.)
- Mary Ann White, director of product marketing for the galaxy design platform at Synopsys, says: "Body biasing is another technique that is being recycled. It entered the picture at 90nm when design teams found they could reduce leakage by as much as 30%. Even at 45/40nm, savings were in the 20% to 25% range. But at 28nm, the benefit for bulk CMOS dropped to as low as 2%... When you use biasing, you are using extra tracks and extra resources, which may include one or two extra rails, but the benefit was falling off at 28nm using planar CMOS. Interest is picking up again with FD-SOI. What's interesting about this is we used to insert biasing at the back end, where you require a bulk n-well or p-well pin. But recently we've had a request to add that capability into UPF. We rolled that out with skepticism on our part, but we've been getting a lot of interest. If you're adding 5% area for better power, it's worth it." (See this related discussion for more.)
This paradigm shift could be a real blessing to the industry. The escalating costs drove out VCs from investing in semiconductor startups, and it drastically narrowed the number of vendors and the number of advanced new designs. It left little room for innovation or anything other than rushing to the next technology node. Now it seems that a whole new industry dynamic is taking place. Innovation is being embraced, new markets are being explored, and (hopefully) we will see the return of VCs with the increase in semiconductor vendors and technologies.
This is also the time to pay increased attention to semiconductor technologies that could offer better intrinsic devices without traditional dimensional scaling. Most notable among those would be SOI, Monolithic 3D, and sub-threshold design. The 2014 S3S Conference, which is scheduled for Oct. 6-9, 2014, at the Westin San Francisco Airport, would be a great opportunity to learn more about those technologies as it provides the latest research results along with workshops, tutorials, and a range of invited papers. The conference advance program is now available here. This looks to be the one conference that active members of the semiconductor industry should not miss.