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Creating a long-term view for the semiconductor industry

The semiconductor industry is set for considerable change over the next 15 years.

“We are at an inflection point in the history of the [chip] industry,” says Thomas Conte, an IEEE Fellow. “It will be very different and very diverse; there won’t be one semiconductor industry.” 



Conte (pictured) is co-chair of the IEEE Rebooting Computing initiative that is sponsoring the International Roadmap of Devices and Systems (IRDS) programme (See The emergence of the IRDS, below). The IRDS is defining technology roadmaps over a 15-year horizon and in November will publish its first that spans nine focus areas. 

The focus of the IRDS on systems and devices and the broadening of technologies being considered is a consequence of the changing dynamics of the chip industry.

Conte stresses that it is not so much the ending of Moore’s Law that is causing the change as the ending of CMOS. Transistors will still continue to shrink even though it is becoming harder and costlier to achieve but the scaling benefits that for decades delivered a constant power density for chips with each new CMOS process node ended a decade ago.

“Back in the day it was pretty easy to plot it [the roadmap] because the technology was rather static in what we wanted to achieve,” says Conte. That ‘cushy ride’ that CMOS has delivered is ending. “The question now is: Are there other technologies we should be investing in that help applications move forward?” says Conte.


Focus groups

The IRDS has set up nine focus groups and in March published the first white papers from the teams. 

The most complete white paper is from the More Moore focus group which looks at how new generations of smaller transistor features will be achieved. “It is clear that for the next 10 to 15 years we still have a lot of CMOS nodes left,” says Conte. “We still have to track what happens to CMOS.”

Conte says it is becoming clearer that ICs, in general, are going to follow the course of flash memory and be constructed as 3D monolithic designs. “We are just beginning to understand how to do this," says Conte.

"This does not mean we are going to get transistors that make computing faster without doing something different,” he says. This explains the work of the Beyond CMOS (Emerging Research Devices) focus team that is looking at alternative non-CMOS technologies to advance systems performance.


It is clear that for the next 10 to 15 years we still have a lot of CMOS nodes left


A third IRDS focus group is Outside System Connectivity which includes interface technologies such as photonic interconnect needed for future systems. “Outside System Interconnect is an important focus group and it is also our interface to the IEEE 5G roadmap team,” he says.

Conte also highlights two other IRDS focus teams: System and Architecture, and Applications Benchmarking. “These two focus teams are really important as to what the IRDS is all about,” says Conte.

The System and Architecture group has identified four systems views that it will focus on: the data centre, mobile handsets and tablets, edge devices for the Internet of Things, and control systems for the cyber-physical world such as automation, robotics and automotive systems.  

The Application Benchmarking focus group is tasked with predicting key applications, quantifying how their performance is evolving and identifying roadblocks that could hinder their progress. Feature recognition, an important machine learning task, is one such example.

The IRDS is also continuing the working format established by the ITRS whereby every odd year a new 15-year roadmap is published while updates are published every even year.



Three communities contribute to the development of the IRDS roadmap: industry, government and academia.

Industry is more concerned with solving their immediate problems and do not have the time or resources to investigate something that might or might not work in 15 years’ time, says Conte. Academia, in contrast, is more interested in addressing challenging problems over a longer term, 15-year horizon. Government national labs in the US and Europe’s imec sit somewhere in between and try to come up with mid-range solutions. “It is an interesting tension and it seems to work,” says Conte.  

Contributors to the IRDS are from the US, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan but not China which is putting huge effort to be self-sufficient in semiconductors.

“We have not got participation for China yet,” says Conte. “It is not that we are against that, we just have not made the connections yet.” Conte believes China’s input would be very good for the roadmap effort. “They are being very aggressive and bright and they are more willing to take risks than the West,” he says. 

What will be deemed a success for the IRDS work?

“It is to come up with a good prediction that is 15 years out and identify what the roadblocks are to getting there.”  



The emergence of the IRDS

The IRDS was established in 2016 by the IEEE after it took over the roadmap work of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), an organisation sponsored by the five leading chip manufacturing regions in the world.

“The [work of the] ITRS was a bottoms-up roadmap, driven by the semiconductor industry,” says Conte. “It started with devices and didn't really go much higher.”

With the end of scaling, whereby the power density of chips remained constant with each new CMOS process node, the ITRS realised its long-established roadmap work needed a rethink which resulted in the establishment of ITRS 2.0. 

“The ITRS 2.0 was an attempt to do a top-down approach looking at the system level and working down to devices,” says Conte. It was well received by everyone but the sponsors, says Conte, which was not surprising given their bottoms-up focus. It resulted in the sponsors of the ITRS 2.0 such as the US Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) pulling out and the IEEE stepping in.

“This is much closer to what we are trying to do with the Rebooting Computing so it makes sense this group comes into the IEEE band and we act as a sponsor,” says Conte.

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