5 Trends in Discrete Semiconductors: What’s New and What’s Next- Adam J. Fleischer

Semiconductors are the unsung heroes of the technology world. They work behind the scenes in everything from toys and smartphones to cars and thermostats. They also enable breakthrough technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

But not all semiconductors are created equal. Some are discrete, meaning they are single devices that perform basic electronic functions. Others are integrated, meaning they consist of many devices on a single chip that perform complex functions.

The basic functions that discrete semiconductors perform include rectification (diodes), amplification (transistors) and switching (transistors and thyristors). Discretes typically have two or three terminals. They may seem simple, but they are essential for many applications that require high performance, low power consumption and greater functionality. They also offer more flexibility and customization than integrated circuits (ICs).

The discrete semiconductor market is booming. It is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.3% from 2021 to 2027, reaching $37 billion by 2027. The market growth is driven by the increasing demand for discrete semiconductors in industrial, consumer electronics, IT and telecom, automotive and other applications.

Trends shaping the future of discrete semiconductors In this article we will explore five top trends that are shaping the future of discrete semiconductors, and how electronics engineers can leverage them in their designs. These trends are artificial intelligence (AI), advanced materials, advanced packaging, novel architectures and the Internet of Things (IoT). Let’s dive in!

Artificial Intelligence

AI requires discrete semiconductors that are intelligent, very efficient and capable of handling massive amounts of data and computation. Discrete semiconductors achieve this by using advanced materials and architectures that enable higher speeds, lower power consumption and greater functionality. 

For example, smart sensors can process data locally using AI algorithms and communicate with other devices or the cloud, while edge computing devices can perform AI tasks at the edge of the network without relying on the cloud. 

Advanced Materials

Advanced materials – including gallium nitride (GaN), silicon carbide (SiC) and organic electronics – have superior properties and performance compared to conventional materials (namely, silicon, germanium and gallium arsenide). Advanced materials can enhance the performance and functionality of discrete semiconductors by improving efficiency, reliability, speed and power density. 

For example, components made from GaN and SiC can withstand higher voltages, temperatures and frequencies than silicon. They reduce the size, weight and cost of power converters for applications such as electric vehicles, renewable energy and data centers.

Organic electronics can enable flexible, lightweight and low-cost optoelectronic devices such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), organic solar cells and organic lasers. They offer advantages such as better color quality, wider viewing angles and lower power consumption compared to conventional optoelectronic devices.

Novel Architectures

Novel architectures are new ways of designing and integrating discrete semiconductors that offer higher functionality and performance than traditional architectures. These architectures include three-dimensional (3D) integration, chiplets and monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs). These architectures can reduce the cost, size and complexity of discrete semiconductors for various applications.

3D integration is a technique that stacks multiple chips vertically using through-silicon vias (TSVs) or other interconnects. This technique can increase the density, speed and functionality of discrete semiconductors for high-performance computing (HPC) applications such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Chiplets are small chips that can be combined on a substrate or an interposer to form a larger chip. This technique enables modular design and customization of discrete semiconductors for 5G/6G applications. Chiplets can integrate different RF functions (such as amplifiers, filters, switches and antennas) as well as different digital functions (such as processors, memory and interfaces) on a single chiplet.

MMICs are integrated circuits that operate at microwave frequencies. They are fabricated using compound semiconductor materials such as gallium arsenide or gallium nitride. They offer higher performance and reliability for aerospace applications such as radar, navigation, communication and electronic warfare.

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Advanced Packaging

Advanced packaging involves the use of novel methods and materials to encapsulate and interconnect discrete semiconductors. These methods include fan-out wafer-level packaging (FOWLP), embedded wafer-level ball grid array (eWLB) and through-silicon via (TSV). These techniques can facilitate more efficient and reliable discrete semiconductors that can overcome the limitations of traditional packaging methods.

FOWLP embeds discrete semiconductors into a mold compound and connects them to a redistribution layer (RDL) on a wafer level. This technique enables more compact and integrated discrete semiconductors for automotive applications such as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), infotainment and powertrain. 

eWLB embeds discrete semiconductors into a reconfigured wafer and connects them to an RDL on a wafer level. This technique improves thermal management, electrical performance and mechanical robustness by providing better heat dissipation, lower parasitics and higher reliability. eWLB enables more flexible and robust discrete semiconductors for medical applications such as implantable devices, biosensors and wearables.

TSV is a technique that creates vertical electrical connections through a silicon wafer or die. By enabling 3D stacking of memory and logic chips, TSV can increase the bandwidth and speed of discrete semiconductors. This enables denser, higher performance discrete semiconductors for industrial applications such as robotics, automation and machine vision. 

The Internet of Things

Discrete components used for IoT need to be small, low power and able to communicate with different technologies and protocols, posing unique challenges. Discrete semiconductors meet these challenges with high performance, low cost, highly reliable components with diverse functionality. For example, diodes provide protection against voltage spikes and transients, transistors act as switches and amplifiers for controlling and regulating power, thyristors provide overcurrent protection, and LEDs provide visual feedback.

Stay ahead of the curve

By offering more flexibility and customization than integrated circuits, discrete semiconductors are enabling breakthrough technologies. To stay ahead of the curve, electronics engineers and designers need to keep abreast of the latest developments and innovations in discrete semiconductor design and manufacturing. They also need to leverage the advantages of new materials, architectures and packaging techniques to optimize their discrete semiconductor solutions for different use cases and markets.