Why does Soitec have a unique position in the industry?
Over the last few years, Soitec has built an organization capable of elevating itself in the value chain, learning what the end customer road map is and working with our customers’ customers to enable options and technical solutions. We are working with the entire ecosystem. We want to understand the issues that companies are trying to address in their roadmaps such as performance, power consumption and reliability. This will allow us to develop the materials and solutions that will be integrated into their final products.
There is a strong interdependence between the substrate, the process and the design. By working and communicating across the entire supply chain, Soitec is helping to define industry standards. It is for this reason that we also work with a lot of academic institutions and research centers. In Europe, we have a long‑standing partnership with CEA‑Leti, with whom we have created a common lab. We also work with IMEC on advanced process integration and well-known European automotive companies to create innovative platforms for the vehicles of tomorrow. In Asia, we are part of a group led by China Mobile to establish the next standard for 5G mobile communication networks in China and worldwide. And in California, we are collaborating to apply our SOI technology in developing innovative platforms for augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR).
At Soitec, we are manufacturing SOI wafers. We buy bulk silicon substrates and, using our toolbox, we peel off and bond some materials together on top of the silicon substrates. An SOI wafer consists of a thin silicon layer put onto an oxide layer atop a handle wafer. The top silicon layer is very thin – 10 times smaller than a hair.
The resulting engineered wafers enable very specific performance at the device level. We have products for digital applications – such as FD-SOI, Photonics-SOI and Imager-SOI – and products for communications and power applications – such as RF-SOI and Power-SOI. And there is more to come since our technology can also be applied on non-silicon substrates.
Our SOI technology is supported by the full ecosystem in which we work. Our experience and expertise in materials makes Soitec a strong and very important link in the supply chain.
What is your vision as an industry leader?
As a leader in innovative semiconductor standards for products shaping the future, we are dedicated to providing today’s mobile world with the low power consumption, high performance, high reliability and high cost efficiency that it needs.
Innovation is part of our company’s DNA. To address new applications in RF communications, we must bring a new product to market every 12 to 18 months. Our goal is to get these new products to the level where they will become market standards and fulfil the needs of our customers.
Virtually all smart phones manufactured today contain RF‑SOI. We want to achieve that same level of standardization for SOI technology in automotive, AR/VR and imaging applications. We are focused on getting SOI into these products and applications that are shaping the future.
For the first time in the history of semiconductors, there are multiple industry drivers and not only “ONE big thing”. Materials are at the core and we can provide the enabling solution for many of today’s critical applications and the ones to come. We have a unique innovation model, we offer a broad product portfolio and we are bringing high‑value differentiation to our customers in each strategic market.
What markets are you targeting?
We are focused on four markets: smart phones/mobile applications, automotive, cloud computing and the Internet of Things. For these high-volume consumer markets, we know the vital importance of delivering the right performance and reliability at the right price.
Each of these areas requires real-time communications. For example, if you drive a car, you cannot wait seconds for the vehicle’s collision-warning system to activate. With the coming generation of 5G communications, signals will be transmitted in milliseconds, not seconds.
For other applications such as IoT, users want wireless products with sensors capable of detecting, processing and communicating while also consuming only a small amount of power.
These are opportunities for Soitec to bring solutions through SOI’s capabilities in 5G communications and energy-efficient functionality.
Communications is one of your key targets and RF-SOI is an industry standard today. How do you see this market developing?
RF communications drive virtually all of the wireless, connected devices in use today. To meet users’ demands for handling greater volumes of data at faster speeds, we must reduce network latency. The coming generation of 5G communications will do this.
In 2019, we will see the first 5G networks appearing. There are two kinds of 5G. One is sub‑6-GHz communication, which is an evolution of 4G. Then we have 5G using millimetre-waves (mmWave), which is a new technology. RF-SOI and FDSOI products will integrate solutions for both applications.
Meanwhile, the majority of today’s communications business is in 4G, where there is plenty of development to do before going to 5G. Although the 4G handset market is growing slowly, more and more of these phones are adopting advanced communication protocols including LTE, LTE-Advanced, and LTE-Advanced Pro. As the number of phones moving to LTE technology grows, the need for SOI increases.
RF‑SOI is the standard technology used in making many of the components used in smart phones including antenna tuners, switches, diplexers and low-noise amplifiers. In addition, RF-SOI is beginning to penetrate the power-amplifier business.
Our RF products will continue to expand in 200mm wafer size but this year we are also qualifying and ramping in manufacturing 300mm RFSOI
Today, Soitec has two RF-SOI product families – first generation and new generation – to match different market requirements. With these products, we are able to cover the wide range of performance needs for current and emerging smart phones with an optimal balance of performance and cost.
We understand you also work on non-silicon products, designing new substrates for key applications. Can you give us some examples?
Yes, we have a lot of activities in development and R&D to explore upcoming challenges, such as in the field of AR/VR. For example, with CEA‑Leti, we have developed a new compound material called indium gallium nitride. We put a thin layer of this onto a sapphire substrate and demonstrated that it can be used to build blue, green, yellow, amber and even red LEDs. Micro-LED technology is very interesting for virtual reality, high‑definition smart watch screens and smart phone displays. Today, it is in the R&D phase and we are looking at whether we can make a real product to serve the industry.
We also are looking at developing a new engineered substrate for filters, which comprise 50 percent of the RF content in smart phones. To get more data, you need more bands. As the number of bands increases, filters capabilities must increase. So we have developed a new generation of piezoelectric-on-insulator substrates. They have a new structure, in which a very thin monocrystalline layer bonds onto a silicon wafer through an oxide. The structure provides temperature stability to build multi‑frequency filters that support wide bands and will enable further integrations reducing overall cost. This technology, currently under evaluation by tier-one customers, would allow us to offer products for the full range of front‑end modules.
Another material developed by Soitec, FD-SOI, is becoming a new industry standard and revolutionizing the industry. Can you give us an update?
FD‑SOI – currently available at multiple foundries and multiple nodes – offers a unique platform for integrating multiple functionalities while still using lower power for mobile‑device infrastructures. You can even integrate functionalities such as 5G transceivers. That cannot be done with the same low‑power budget in any other platform.
For automotive systems, FD-SOI provides an ideal solution for controlling all your ADAS systems, your cockpit and all the sensors and fast computers close to the sensing. Then there are all the other applications in the Internet of Things, including network infrastructure and AR/VR.
A FD‑SOI substrate has an ultra‑thin film of silicon, where the channel of the transistor can be created directly on ultra‑thin buried oxide. This not only isolates the top silicon from the rest of the substrate, but also enables an additional back gate. That allows designers to use a technique called back biasing to switch from low-power to high‑performance mode, providing unmatched flexibility.
With FD‑SOI capable of working at 0.4 volt, power savings can be up to 80 percent compared to bulk silicon. Depending on the voltage used, performance can be up to 50 percent faster in terms of performance. With Moore’s Law, you can integrate more transistors into a device, thereby reducing costs.
Through SOI’s established global ecosystem, everything from foundry partners to design services with tools and EDA simulation are available. More than 100 customers are engaged in designing, testing and qualifying their products using FD-SOI. Foundries now manufacturing products with FD-SOI include Renesas at 65 nm, STMicroelectronics and Samsung at 28 nm, and GLOBALFOUNDRIES and Huali in Asia at 22 nm. Processing at 18 nm is ready for evaluation by our customers. We are working with GLOBALFOUNDRIES on the 12-nm node, which will bring increased performance to the FD‑SOI platform.
End products that incorporate FD-SOI range far beyond smart phones. For instance, Sony has built a GPS device that consumes only five percent as much power as previous units. To date, it has been integrated into smart watches made by Huami and Casio. In the automotive industry, the EyeQ4 vision-processing system from Mobileye uses FD-SOI in gathering information from multiple sensors and making sure that they are aggregated and digested so that the central processor can make the right decisions for the driver. And NXP Semiconductors’ FD-SOI-based i.MX 8 series of microcontrollers can handle a car’s infotainment functions with low power and low soft‑error rates. The same platform used in cars is found in voice-activated home assistants. These always‑on electronics need low power all the time and multiple functionalities to deliver their on‑demand performance.
You have announced an exciting new substrate for 3D imaging applications. What value are you bringing there?
Our Imager‑SOI substrates enable increased performance in next‑generation 3D cameras. Recently we announced a very important breakthrough in 3D imaging with the deployment of some security features. These include facial recognition for unlocking your phone and other applications for a wide range of products.
SOI technology solves a problem faced by today’s near-infra-red (NIR) sensors, in which the light collected to form an image penetrates deep into the silicon sensor. This makes it very difficult to achieve the right signal-to-noise ratio in the sensors. But SOI wafers, with their top-silicon and buried oxide layers, prevent light from going deep into the substrates and getting back into the pixels. This improves sensors’ sensitivity and allows pixels to be made smaller. One very-well-known image sensor product on the market is already using Imager-SOI and more will follow.