The semiconductor fab dream

This would be a cynical/realistic view on the semiconductor manufacturing landscape from a totally outsider’s perspective.

Hi all,
I have always had an interest in semiconductor or more precisely Processor manufacturing since the day I assembled my first PC/box some 10-15 years back. I can still re-collect the wonder I felt the day I saw, held the tiny processor which continues to overpower and fascinate me till date. That excitement and wonder was part of what led me to explore IT, first and foremost as a student which I still am.

That wonder did lead me to try to research how one of the chips are made. I came from a NON-IT background (commerce person) so it took me time to understand. Terms like wafer size, die-size, masking and all the terminology was new to me. Also there wasn’t a lot of information about such things and processes which are available to anyone who wants to peruse it today. At that point, there was this idea/dream that one day India should have its semiconductor fabrication plants like they were in States and later Europe.

A slightly more technical background about what and timelines expected of such a Fabrication Unit/Plant means in India can be found in an Economic Times report.

I used to scan all sorts of national dailies and the pink papers (Financial papers) in the hopes that we would have soon. There used to be rumors that Intel would make a semiconductor fabrication unit in India soon. In fact, Times of India (a national daily which had not yet earned the notorious name as a paid news organization) published a story in circa 2003 and I was over-joyed to learn that soon India would soon have a semiconductor fabrication plant. This later turned out to be a missed opportunity for India as Intel made fabs at U.S.A., Ireland and other places. A bit of story of the Government’s miss-step at the time can be seen in the Hindu’s report of 2007 when it was confirmed that Intel would not be doing the semiconductor plant at all. You can see Intel’s double-speak and it’s action at the list of Semiconductor fabs listed on Wikipedia. I would not blame Intel as it a business organization and where, how much to invest are all plans that have to be made with an eye to having a healthy bottom-line and attraction/subsidies from the Government. All Governments do this world-over and India would not have been any different.

Around the same time, 2005 to be more precise, a consortium named Semindia was formed, more info. of the same can be seen in this Fortune report, you can see also the Hindu report on the same. The main thing was that AMD was to be the partner for this. Later on that also became a big failure.

The years 2003-2007 were some of the best years for the IT consumables business, especially for the desktop and server-end and both could have been a perfect opportunity to take the leap into technologies which will rule much of our lives.

What also has to be thought that if a such a unit or plant would have been created then lot of expertise, technical, financial, administration would also have developed and other semiconductor players would have also entered the market here.

Cut to 2013, there were rumors in the air again that two semiconductor giants (IBM and STMicroelectronics) would be setting up fabs in India only to have no info. after that.

With that background of history, I am somewhat cynically optimistic that few announcements which have come do make a difference. The first is that we have or would have India’s first wafer characterization lab by a Company called Tessolve as well as couple of more companies who have plans for electronics manufacturing in India, as shared in the Hindu’s report. Another intriguing announcement was shared by a Company called ‘Cricket Semiconductor’ came up during the last month as well which can be seen in another Hindu’s report.

Now while all the news have the usual ‘feel-good factor’ a bad taste in the mouth is felt when you see and study the Diasbility Report as shared by IESA. There are at least two glaring errors which just as an outsider I could see. They are :-

a. The data in the report is not backed by anything. There is no accompany data or citation which will tell if the numbers are true or not. If I was somebody who would be wanting to Invest looking at an opportunity, then one which is backed by citations which I could research and know more would be lot better.

b. In the Value Addition matrix, everything except silicon chips are talked about. There is no mention of the scale of silicon chips which nowadays go into almost every electronic product that we have. With the advent of IOT (Internet of Things) and companies with good thermal and performance features such as ARM would not be surprised if more electronic products have both the network addressing and highly localized computing added without need for human interference. Take any recent Beagle Bone Black and a bit of imagination and you can see it happening right in front of you.

In the past and even recently I have heard of mysterious fires breaking out in any test fab units which opened up in India. Whether these were incidental, deliberate acts of sabotage and espionage by a different company or companies or countries is not known. While I can’t share the name of the organization as these are rumors I have heard over years but never seen anything in the media which makes the situation even more curiouser if it’s true.

I don’t know what to think of the current situation. Even if such a plant did happen today, it will not happen at 14nm die-size (which is what Intel is aiming for atm.) but probably a generation or two older (22-32nm). Even at those sizes it would be a revolution for lot of Indian businesses who want to use silicon chips in their systems (for e.g. automative industries, monitoring and controlling industries and host of others). Everybody will benefit if prices for the final product come down.

Looking forward to hearing from people.

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