Electronic Design

Foundries Must Focus On Finances

Maintaining Moore’s Law’s momentum is no cheap business for the electronics industry. The digital side of the industry is often seen as the one most influenced by the need to keep doubling the number of gates within a two-year timeframe.

But the digital dilemma is how to deal with the financial costs of migrating to much smaller processes to achieve such technical breakthroughs, whilst simultaneously making reasonable returns on investment. Just how many digital foundries have the financial muscle to continue moving forward in an attempt to fuel the Moore’s Law merry-go-round?

According to analog/mixed-signal foundry X-FAB Silicon Foundries, the accelerating cost associated with following Moore’s Law, plus building 300mm fabs capable of running up to 100,000 wafers per month, leaves a number of smaller digital foundry players at a disadvantage. X-FAB is one of the world’s largest foundry groups. It turns out silicon wafers for mixedsignal ICs and has a manufacturing capacity of approximately 840,000 200mm-equivalent wafers a year.

What’s interesting is this company focuses its expertise on analog and mixed-signal process technologies. These are categorically not intended for digital applications, but rather aimed squarely at analog applications that can be integrated with additional functions such as high voltage, nonvolatile memory, or sensors.

Unfortunately for some foundries, the digital applications they previously served are now moving to smaller geometries manufactured in advanced fabs. One way to deal with this problem could be for certain fabs to address applications within their technological capability, e.g., CMOS image sensors, smart discretes, CMOS MEMS, or analog applications.

In support of those theories, X-FAB recently announced that it had developed the industry’s first foundry process for the production of integrated Hall sensor ICs in 0.18μm technology. This has some significant technical advantages, including the fact that its low-power CMOS process, known as XH018, allows Hall sensor elements to combine with high-voltage devices and nonvolatile-memory options. This, in turn, means more cost-effective and energy-efficient SoC solutions. In addition, the silicon-based contactless implementation of Hall sensors cuts down mechanical wear, which obviously improves both durability and reliability.

Another advantage for these sensors relates directly to the small geometry. The resulting high-integration density means that high magnetic sensitivity can be achieved with minimal parasitic effects.

I like X-FAB’s dedicated approach to the advanced analog and mixed-signal process technologies. Although, perhaps none of us should be too surprised when we consider that the 2009 analog market was valued at €42 billion.

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