April 27, 2010 2:16pm
It is not often that a results conference comes complete with a lecture on the future path of semiconductor development should Moore’s Law reach its limits, but then Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing is not like many other companies – few other chipmaker produce as many different types of chips for as many different applications.
Among the highlights of the 20-minute talk by Chiang Shang-yi, TSMC vice president of research and development:
Our current chip technology can sustainfor another ten years, and see the spacing between transistors on a chip shrink from 40 nanometers currently to 7 nanometers. Anything beyond that would require innovating some completely new technology.
Moore’s Law may come to an end much sooner for economic rather than technological reasons. Mr Chiang ran through some quick calculations that reveal the economics behind the chipmaking industry:
The doubling of transistors on a chip from one generation to the next theoretically means a 100 per cent economic gain for the chipmaker, but because some other parts on a chip cannot be shrunk to the same degree, the gain ends up at around 85 per cent. Another roughly 35 per cent was sunk into research costs, leaving a 50 per cent gain compared to the old technology.
However, bringing out new technology inevitably erodes the price of chips made using the old technology, taking away another 25 per cent. In the past, upgrading machinery and other production costs involved in producing a next-generation chip meant a 15 per cent increase in costs, leaving 10 per cent profit to be shared between TSMC and its customers.
“If that 15 per cent rises to 25 per cent, Moore’s Law will not continue,” Mr Chiang said.
However, even if Moore’s Law reaches its limits after 10 years, there is still another 10 years’ worth of technological advancements to be made with so-called “More Than Moore” technologies. This is because while processors and memory chips need to squeeze as many transistors as possible onto a chip to be more powerful, a host of other semiconductor products still currently use older technology because they have other, specialised, functions. These include memory embedded onto a chip, microcontrollers, image sensors used in all cameras, and chips that control power usage.
Beyond the spacing between transistors, there is also a lot of room for improvement in “system integration”, or how chips and other components are arranged on a circuit board. TSMC is looking into technologies such as stacking chips on top of each other, or replacing plastic with silicon as the base material of the circuit board.
The conclusion: “If Moore’s Law has 10 years to go, then more-than-Moore has 10 more, and system integration many more years to go,” Mr Chiang said.