EETimes.com – Singapore seeks to bolster presence in high-tech

EETimes.com – Singapore seeks to bolster presence in high-tech.

SAN FRANCISCO—When Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Investment Co. earlier this year bought Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd., Singapore’s biggest chip foundry, and folded it into GlobalFoundries Inc., some saw it as a blow to Singapore’s microelectronics industry.

Damian Chan

But not Damian Chan, director of electronics for Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB). In a recent interview with EE Times, Chan said it doesn’t matter to the EDB whether Singapore’s wafer fabs are locally owned or under the control of companies headquartered in other countries, as long as they are building chips on the island nation.

“I think the acquisition of Chartered by Global Foundries was good because it will give GlobalFoundries access to a larger customer base and it also makes [the former Chartered fabs in Singapore] financially stronger,” Chan said.

According to Chan, Singapore currently has 14 wafer fabs. Of these, four are 300-mm facilities, while most of the rest are 200-mm fabs, he said.

And Singapore’s EDB would like to add more. According to Chan, Singapore has the talent pool to support more chip manufacturing facilities. The country wants to attract more fabless chip companies to set up operations there, too.

Chan said Singapore views itself as a hub for high-tech development and R&D. Many companies consider Singapore their headquarters in the all important market of Asia, he said.

EE Times’ interview with Chan touched on a number of topics, including future directions for the island’s electronics industry and competition with China and other countries for attracting tech investment. The following is an excerpted, edited version of the interview.

EE Times: Singapore has a very excellent research institute, the Institute of Microelectronics. With the sale of Chartered to Global Foundries, will that institute’s research go in new directions like nanoelectronics, renewable energy, MEMs and printed electronics?

Damian Chan: First, to set the record straight, we are not deemphasizing microelectronics. We are continuing to grow and gain market share over the past eight years [in semiconductor manufacturing relative to the rest of the world]. And we feel that we will continue to do so.

Microelectronics obviously is a pretty broad space. Rather than looking at leading-edge semiconductor processing technology, like 28-nm and then 22-, they are looking at extending the number of applications. So they are focusing a lot on areas such as MEMs, silicon photonics and bioelectronics. They have strong capabilities in areas like packaging, which of course can be applied across these different areas.

Singapore has 14 fabs. Four are 12-inch fabs, and most of the rest are 8-inch fabs, except for some older fabs from ST Microelectronics. Looking into other applications like MEMs will enable us to extend the life span of those mature fabs.

EE Times: What does Singapore want to be a center for in the future? In the past it was the center of disk drive manufacturing, then it became a center of semiconductor fabs. What does Singapore want to be known as in 10 years?

We see Singapore as continuing to be a major electronics hub moving forward. Our vision is Singapore being a frontier for high-tech electronics, extending and pushing the frontiers of high-tech electronics.

In semiconductors, we will continue to develop our foundry industry, the fabless ecosystem and continue to develop talent in Singapore for IC design as part of that ecosystem.

A major focus in IC design for us is analog/mixed-signal design. In Singapore, we recognize that if we just talk about competing in terms of pure quantity of R&D talent, it’s hard for us to compete with some of the other Asian nations. We are just a small country of 5 million people. We want to focus on areas where it is really more quality and expertise that count. Certain parts of digital IC design tend to be, in a sense, a bit more commoditized compared to analog/mixed signal and RF design, where there is definitely a global shortage. Companies all over the world tell us that they can’t get enough of these people.

So today in Singapore, out of our pool of about 1,100 IC designers, 45 percent are experienced in analog/mixed signal design. We want to build on that. To do that, we have scholarship programs in place where we provide joint sponsorships to students to do masters and PhDs in universities in Singapore. Joint sponsorships are with companies; there are some cases where we do it 100 percent funded by the government.

We also recently set up an IC center of excellence at one of our major universities, Nanyang Technological University. The center is called Virtus, which means excellence in Latin. It’s meant to be an IC design center of excellence, focusing on analog design specifically looking at low power management. Over the next five years it will train 50 PhDs and 50 masters.

Many years ago we were known as the hard disk drive capability. There was one point when about 60 percent of hard disk drives were manufactured in Singapore. Obviously, the nature of the industry is such that things don’t stay stagnant.

At the same time, Singapore being a small company, we’ve been able to restructure. Even within the data storage market we continue to play a major role, though less so now in areas like hard disk drive assembly. But going more into components technology within the hard disk drives, today Singapore actually accounts for about 45 percent of the world’s hard disk media output.

In terms of newer areas within electronics, there are areas we are looking at like, for instance, plastic electronics, or what some people call printable electronics or flexible electronics. That will leverage to a large extent the semiconductor fabrication capabilities we have in Singapore, but going beyond that it will require a lot of materials processing capabilities as well. We have been building the building blocks for this within some of the research institutes in Singapore like the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering. They have been doing R&D and materials development as well as roll-to-roll processing. At the same time we have been successful in attracting companies to do R&D in Singapore in this space, mainly at the materials and device level. We have companies like BASF doing materials R&D. We have companies like Bosch for instance and ST Microelectronics. Bosch is doing R&D in organic photovoltaics. ST Microelectronics has their plastic electronics center of excellence in Singapore.

This industry called plastic electronics is still relatively new, probably at the same stage where the semiconductor industry was about 30 or 40 years ago. So it’s really about creating the building blocks in Singapore within the research institutes and having companies do the necessary R&D so that when this industry goes into a significant stage of commercialization, then Singapore will be ready in terms of not just doing the R&D but also high-tech manufacturing.

Traditionally electronics has been driven by computing, communications and consumer electronics. Moving forward those will still be major drivers, but I think a lot of companies are seeing that there are new verticals which are emerging. For instance in health care, energy efficiency (some people call it green electronics) and security. At the EDB we have announced that we will be developing some of these new verticals. For green electronics, that will encompass LEDs and electronics around an LED system, a lot of which is linked to analog design capabilities.

We also see more companies setting up R&D centers in Singapore to focus on things like energy efficiency, like LED driver design. In terms of energy efficiency, just last year Infineon announced they are setting up in Singapore their first application innovation center in Asia. That specifically will be developing products, both chips and system level solutions, to address the specific needs of the Asian markets. The examples that the Infineon spokesperson gave were things like electric bicycles. It’s not so much about taking things that were developed in the West and adapting that, but actually developing products in Asia for Asia. Some of these can be tweaked and sold back to the West. GE has a good example, the portable ultrasound device that was developed for the Chinese market but which has been adapted now for the West. (The GE example is not a Singapore example).

More and more medical device companies are also setting up in Singapore.

EE Times: Does Singapore see itself as competing with China for investment by technology companies?

Chan: Especially within the semiconductor space, competition is global. We don’t see any particular country as being our only major competitor. We see China from two angles. In terms of a competitor, yes, to some extent, but that is also how we see a lot of other countries. But we see opportunities in China also. Not just Singapore-based companies doing manufacturing in China, but increasingly Chinese companies are also setting up in Singapore. In the electronics space, you may think it doesn’t make sense for a Chinese company to set up manufacturing in Singapore; maybe they might set up R&D in Singapore to tap into the talent pool. But a Chinese company based in Southern China called AAC Acoustics has set up an R&D center in China and they have also announced that they will set up manufacturing in Singapore. A lot of Chinese companies are starting to think internationally. Many of these companies have been selling to global markets for a long time. A lot of these companies use Singapore as a starting point from which they can grow globally. AAC is one of them.

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