The semiconductor industry has overcome adversities to break through to new heights; in 2020, a year wracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry achieved a record high NT$3 trillion in total revenue.
How can Taiwan’s semiconductor industry maintain its competitive advantage? The MOST Center for Global Affairs and Science Engagement (GASE) had interviewed Dr. Jack Sun, TSMC’s former Chief Technology Officer, now the Chair Professor at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University’s International College of Semiconductor Technology (ICST) and also at National Taiwan University, and the discussion covered the innovation and the future for semiconductors.
Sun has been deeply involved in advanced process technologies for semiconductors. He returned from the US to Taiwan and joined TSMC in 1997. During his time there, he helped TSMC progress from a follower to a leader in semiconductor manufacturing and nanotechnology. He and TSMC R&D team set many world records. Since retiring, he has devoted much time to industry collaboration on developing pioneering technologies and cultivating talents.
Technological innovation – the DNA of semiconductors
Semiconductors are pervasive. For the foreseeable future, 5G/6G, AI, VR/AR, electric/smart vehicles, smart tools and factories, smart homes, smart cities, smart medical care, and all kinds of ubiquitous AI applications will demand innovation in more powerful and more energy-saving semiconductor chips and systems. This will inject momentum for growth in the semiconductor industry. Sun is optimistic; by relentless technology innovation, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry will continue to enjoy great prospects for growth!
As the semiconductor feature size continues to shrink in recent years, the fabrication process has become increasingly difficult. However, when discussing Moore’s Law, Sun quoted the poet Lu You: “Mountains exhausted, rivers run dry, no roads ahead? But then dark willows are followed by bright flowers, and another village lies ahead”. As he explains, “Getting past the difficulties is difficult, but once they’re past, those difficulties are in the past.” And why? Precisely because technological innovation is the hallmark and DNA of the semiconductor industry.
Sun explained, Moore’s Law is about fitting more and more transistors within a tiny IC chip. Modern chips are already moving toward “multi-story” (3D) integration; using monolithically layered 3D and/or 3D heterogeneous stacking of integrated chips, and hence powerful “3D x 3D ‘Super Moore’” system chips are realized . And this is becoming a major development trend in the industry. Taking TSMC for example, not only are they continuing to introduce nanometer-node 3D CMOS technologies, they’re also doing heterogeneous system integration of chiplets and memory with proprietary 3D IC technologies such as CoWoS, InFO and SoIC. By integrating chiplets and memory into 3Dx3D system chips, they’re meeting the demands of mobile computing as well as high-performance computing applications. These technologies have already exceeded 100-billion-transistor scale; And in not-too-distant future, it is possible that 3Dx3D system chips will reach the class of the human brain (the computational system of the human brain being equivalent to about 1 trillion transistors).
Symbiotic collaborative innovation; international and interdisciplinary alliances
The semiconductor industry is the bedrock supporting most technological innovations. Reaching innovation breakthroughs in advanced integrated circuit processes is definitely not a one-person show; it requires tight-knit collaboration between upstream and downstream of the industry chain.
Sun brought up TSMC as an example. More than 20 years ago, the company decided to remain technologically self-reliant. However, that does not mean they decided to take on the world all by themselves; rather, they worked with their upstream equipment and material partners to unleash their innovation power. Moreover, they set up the TSMC Open Innovation Platform (OIP) to help clients and partners put creative product ideas to work; by lowering the design threshold, using standardized platform specifications, and leveraging third party IPs to allow for rapid integration, which means that new nanotech and products could quickly reach mass production for market. Through this way, they create a mutually beneficial framework for everyone to succeed in the symbiotic ecosystem.
In recent years, smart manufacturing has become a worldwide trend, it also depends on semiconductor development. Sun believes that building a robust and vibrant semiconductor industry ecosystem will require applying AI in the industry, products, and even services. Taiwan also needs to proactively strengthen the interaction between the players in the Taiwanese semiconductor sector with the relevant international organizations. In addition to participation in the World Semiconductor Council (WSC) and International Roadmap for Devices and Systems (IRDS, formerly International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS)), Taiwan needs to be a participant in formulating international standards and international industry-academic partnerships. Only then will Taiwan’s semiconductor industry become more internationalized, and so will greater commercial opportunities be captured.
The industry-government-academia triad partnership: Avoiding a shortage of semiconductor talent
Talent sustainability is crucial for industrial sustainability – yet the semiconductor industry around the world is facing a gradually worsening deficiency in talent. Sun pointed out that if Taiwan is to maintain its world-leading advantages in semiconductor technology and related industries, the quality of talent simply must be enhanced.
To solve the talent shortage, Sun said, the industry, government and academia will need to form a mutually-reinforcing “Triad” partnership. Government needs to loosen legal restrictions, and provide sufficient research resources. Industry, for its part, needs to build bridges with academia, while also lowering barriers with academia. And academia, which serves as the training ground for talent, needs to provide a cross-disciplinary platform for research and collaboration dialogue, to stimulate and produce top-notch R&D results.
Regarding the new initiative of “Semiconductor College” sandboxes established through collaboration between industry and major universities in Taiwan, Sun believes that the College must build a topflight research environment to provide talents that match the needs of the industry.
When most students today think about semiconductor work, they think of a stereotypical engineer wearing a clean room suit in a factory. This image has affected their willingness to seek employment in this field. Sun stated candidly that professions are now diverse in the society, and salary and profit-sharing are no longer the only things that attract people. He therefore encourages students to cultivate their interest in STEM at an early age, and then the passion in semiconductor to pursue their lifelong dreams and goals.
While Quanta founder Barry Lam recently designed learning tools to teach AI to kids in remote areas, TSMC has for many years collaborated with universities such as NTU, NCKU, NTHU, and NCTU for semiconductor research and talent pipeline. TSMC has established joint research centers precisely in order to build up a solid base and cultivate interest among young people. Sun himself, who was educated at NTU, decided to get involved in the industry 45 years ago after taking a semiconductor device physics class from a renowned semiconductor master Simon Sze. Now that Sun is retired, he is playing a role as a volunteer mentor. He hopes to share his experience and perspectives to those who come after him, and to help them understand the industry and the important role it plays in uplifting humanity. “If I have the chance to affect just one or two people, well, that will make it worthwhile!”, Sun concluded.