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5G Wireless Driving Nex-Gen Technologies

Globalfoundries 2017 Technology Conference

By David Lammers

Executives at the Globalfoundries Technology Conference say 5G wireless will drive demand for highly integrated radio frequency ICs, 22FDX-based processors, and leading-edge ASICs.

After a period of relatively slow growth over the past 15 years, Globalfoundries CEO Sanjay Jha said he now foresees a “golden age for semiconductors” through the next 10 to 20 years, as autonomous vehicles, 5G networks, and virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) help drive the industry to new heights. 

Globalfoundries Chief Executive Officer Sanjay Jha

Speaking at the company’s Globalfoundries Technology Conference-2017 (GTC), held recently in Santa Clara, California, Jha said that venture capitalists are already showing revived interest in investing in semiconductor-related ventures, and very large companies such as Google, Amazon, and others increasingly are working directly with foundries to bring their proprietary chip designs to market.

While much of the industry’s attention is riveted on the Moore’s Law technical challenges to leading-edge logic, the advances in radio frequency (RF), power, mixed-signal, and packaging technologies play an equally important role, Jha said. 

Arguing that the 5G cellular standard “will be as disruptive as the change from voice to data was when smartphones came along,” Jha said “we are moving from cellular networks which provide megabits-per-second to sustained bandwidth of gigabits-per-second.” 

The foundry’s technologies are aimed at a range of 5G applications, including integrated millimeter-wave front end modules (FEMs), transceivers, baseband chips, ASICs, and high-performance application processors.  (See figure 1)

Figure 1.  5G wireless networks will drive technologies in handsets, base stations, data centers and automobiles.  (Source:  Globalfoundries Technology Conference-2017)

GF is rolling out two parallel technologies aimed partly at 5G networks – an “8SW” SOI-based technology aimed at wireless front-end modules, and 22FDX, a 22nm fully depleted SOI process capable of digital, RF, and mixed-signal integration. 

Jha, who spent 14 years in design and management roles at Qualcomm and was the CEO of Motorola Mobility before taking the helm at Globalfoundries, said the rollout of an SOI-based RF technology, called 8SW, aimed at switches and integrated low-noise amplifiers (LNAs), will enable a 70 percent power reduction, as well as better resistive and capacitive properties. The 8SW process will be “the first to use 300mm wafer technology, produced at our Fab 10 in Fishkill, New York,” he said. 

Dr. Thomas Caulfield, Senior Vice President and General Manager, GF Fab 8
Faster networking, both wired and wireless, also is impacting demand for the leading-edge ASICs made at the company’s flagship Fab 8 in Malta, New York. Tom Caulfield, Fab 8 general manager, said investments there are aimed at adding more capacity for 5G-related ASICs, as well as the processors and graphics chips designed by AMD and manufactured on the GF 14nm process.

Asked about capacity expansions at Malta, Caulfield said if the beginning of 2016 is taken as the baseline, the fab will have more than doubled its wafer capacity by the end of 2018. While much of that will go towards supporting the strong demand for AMD’s newest processors, Caulfield said 5G-related networking ASICs and other products also are gaining traction.

The foundry’s Dresden, Germany fab is expected to supply the 22FDX products used in 5G telecom and automotive applications, among others.

“We view 5G as a huge market opportunity. It will provide wideband connectivity in the wireless space and is a part of the industry’s drive toward delivering connected intelligence. You can be sure that we are investing in our 5G portfolio,” Caulfield said.

SOI for Switches and LNAs

GF acquired IBM’s pioneering RF CMOS capability when it took over the IBM Microelectronics operation in July 2015. Technologists at IBM’s Burlington, Vermont fab had developed a unique form of RF silicon-on-insulator (SOI), with substrate resistivity characteristics optimized for front-end module (FEM) radio frequency (RF) applications. Now, a version of that SOI-based RF targeted at switches and LNAs, called 8SW, is being ramped up at Fishkill, New York on its 300mm toolset. 

Joel King, general manager of mobile applications at the leading wireless switch vendor, Skyworks, said his company has collaborated with Globalfoundries, enabling Skyworks to “shrink the size of its switches” by using the new 8SW process on 300mm wafers. 

While RF SOI transitions from Burlington to Fishkill, the Burlington 200mm fab will become the foundry’s center of excellence for silicon germanium (SiGe)-based solutions, said Bami Bastani, GF’s senior vice president of RF products. “Silicon germanium is gradually displacing gallium arsenide for power amplifier applications.  I would like to liberate the world from gallium arsenide because it is toxic, bad for you,” he said.  (See figure 2)

Figure 2. Process technologies ranging from RF CMOS to silicon-germanium will be needed for ICs aimed at 5G wireless. (Source: Bami Bastani, Globalfoundries Technology Conference-2017)

By using larger 200mm wafers, and achieving higher levels of digital and analog integration than GaAs is capable of, SiGe-based wireless components “perform as well, and can integrate more of the system, so the system cost goes down,” Bastani said.

GF Senior Vice President,
RF Products Bami Bastani

Beyond handsets, Bastani said high-performance SiGe applications are also growing in applications ranging from radar, automotive-use lidar, and base stations. 

“The dawn of 5G is upon us, and as the industry moves from 4G to 5G, the demand for SiGe will be increasing, all the way from handsets to base stations. Bastani said. The 5G standard is expected to provide 10 Gbits/s, low-latency, high-density wireless networks aimed at IoT, autonomous driving, AR/VR, and other applications. 

“New standards are driving increased complexity of the radios, including massive MiMO, carrier aggregation, and high-speed uplinks and downlinks. Carrier aggregation and new modulation waveforms are coming into the picture,” Bastani said. 

The 5G standard supports both sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave (28 GHz and higher) segments. It will depend in part on arrays of picocells in urban areas. “As we go to point-to-point architectures with millimeter-wave frequencies, customers may put their power amplifiers directly behind the antenna. As the demand on the technology increases, the level of integration increases, putting demands on the process technology to provide better linearity and robustness,” Bastani said. 

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See related article Wireless Everywhere: Connecting the Chip Industry's New Golden Age, Nanochip Fab Solutions, July 2017.