Powerful winds of change are re-shaping the semiconductor industry as it flexes and re-positions to power a new wave of growth on the back of emerging applications. Today, the industry is thriving, with growth expected to continue through 2019 even as Moore’s Law – the trusty doubling of transistors roughly every two years – begins to pump the brakes. Product mix and production technology are shifting as the dominant smartphone and PC markets, having seen their growth peaks, start to give way to large markets with relatively low semiconductor penetration, such as automotive.
What’s more, new potentially ubiquitous technologies and platforms such as AI, blockchain and smart manufacturing are redefining market dynamics and the semiconductor ecosystem that underlies them.
Troublingly, the most significant threats to the continued growth of the semiconductor industry are not of its own making. Macroeconomic trends and trade policy disputes loom.
These were some of the key takeaways from the SEMI Market Symposium kicking off SEMICON West in San Francisco this week. Following is a deeper look.
The consensus view, reflected in forecasts presented by Clark Tseng of SEMI and Bob Johnson of Gartner, is that the semiconductor industry could top $500 billion in 2019 after reaching $400 billion in 2017. According to Gartner, smartphones and PCs will continue to account for large parts of the market, but will be displaced as major drivers of market growth by the emergence of industrial, automotive and, to a lesser extent, storage, from 2017 to 2022. Johnson noted that while communications and data processing applications drive logic device demand, average sales prices (ASPs) are a bigger contributor to revenue growth than unit growth.
Leading-edge processors are a big part of the ASP picture, with equipment costs increasing ~20 percent per node. One challenge is that as Moore’s Law loses steam, leading logic producers are increasingly going their own way with new production technology. The volatile DRAM market – now in a “super cycle,” according to Tseng, and expected to peak in 2019 – has been stoking memory market growth.
Initially, supply shortages fueled memory price increases as three of the four leading memory makers invested in flash rather than DRAM capacity. However, memory prices have been more recently been lifted by technology complexity, particularly as DRAM has moved to 3D architectures. The good news is that pricing, at long last, appears to be driven by value.
With automotive accounting for less than 10 percent of semiconductor demand, there is room for growth. Rudy Burger of Woodside Partners noted that while the end market for automobiles is growing slowly, at 3 percent CAGR, the market size is nearing 100 million units. In market segments such as electric vehicles, the semiconductor content exceeds $1,000 but can be much higher.
For example, the BMW i3 sports over $4,000 in semiconductor content. Burger said connectivity, autonomous driving and shared mobility services are also key opportunities for semiconductors to deepen their penetration in automobiles. For instance, the auto market for cameras, is expected to grow from $2 billion in 2017 to $6 billion in 2022.
On average, high-end vehicles feature over $1,000 in semiconductor content, whereas low-end vehicles hover in the $400 range, said Anand Srinivasan of Bloomberg. Because the automotive market is segmented by function or subsystem, with different suppliers focusing on different areas, there is little supply concentration. Srinivasan also pointed out that because of significant differences in their objectives, automotive safety and automation systems should be developed separately.
The chief benefit of blockchain is the trust it begets among all parties to a digital transaction through four fundamental features, said David Treat of Accenture:
- The tracking of provenance (knowing who has touched data, and what has happened to it)
- Tamper evidence (knowing if someone has tried to change the data)
- Control (which data elements to share with which parties)
- Security at the data element level
While most of the hype over blockchain focuses on tokenized assets and ledgers (bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies), the fundamental application in the semiconductor industry is sharing trusted access to reference data at the data element level. This ability to provide shared trust can reduce costs throughout the supply chain and across enterprises.
For example, future blockchain implementations will offer a full ecosystem view to any supply chain participant. While blockchain has typically been deployed through centralized control or platforms, peer consortia, such as SEMI, could help weave the benefits of blockchain through various ecosystems by enabling equipment and material suppliers, device manufacturers, designers and system integrators to share business and technical information securely and, if desired, anonymously.
Global and Macroeconomic Trends
The biggest threats to the continued growth of the semiconductor industry are exogenous. After a decade of steady recovery since the financial crisis, the global economy appears to be heading for a slowdown. Duncan Meldrum of Hilltop Economics made the case that the global economy is at or just past the peak of the business cycle, and semiconductor equipment is past the peak.A key indicator of a looming recessionary is the movement toward an inverted yield curve, in which long-term interest rates fall below short-term rates – a phenomena that could materialize this year or next.
The increasingly heated trade climate, marked by high-stakes confrontations between the U.S. and China, threatens complex supply chain arrangements, though mercurial policy statements could do even more harm than stiffer trade tariffs.
Underscoring competing interests between the U.S. and China and the unpredictability of their relations, Robert Maire of Semiconductor Advisors pointed out that, in 2019, 60 percent of all semiconductors are expected to be used in China, deepening the dependency of several U.S. semiconductor companies on China.
Paul Semenza, for SEMI Industry Research and Statistics