Demise of analog is exaggerated

28 Jun

Over the last 20 years, the world population grew at a compound annual growth rate of 1.4 percent, recently surpassing the 7 billion mark. During the same time period, overall semiconductor unit sales grew at a CAGR of 9.2 percent, reaching 660 billion chips in 2010, according to the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics organization.What’s interesting is that the analog semiconductor unit CAGR during the same period was 10.3 percent. That’s 92 billion analog chips in 2010, or higher than the overall semiconductor market. That’s over 13 analog chips per human on the planet – each year!

It’s safe to say that “the demise of analog” has been greatly exaggerated.

This rising growth of analog content in products is driven by new solutions to old applications (think hybrid electric vehicles, televisions and LED light bulbs), new applications such as personal computing with smartphones/tablets and smarter automobiles and new markets in personal medicine, alternative energy and safety/security.

Across all of these areas, we are seeing a rapid increase in the use of analog chips as well as sensors. An average smartphone now has more than eight sensors! Over the next five years, the CAGR for sensors/actuators is forecasted to grow 6.8 percent faster than the overall IC market, according to IC Insights. A quick look at a typical block diagram of an electronic device illustrates the number of analog and mixed signal IC’s on a circuit board.  These include amplifiers connected to a data source (such as a sensor), data converters, power management chips, clocks and timing devices and interface chips.Let’s take a look at the manufacturing technologies for analog semiconductors. Unlike digital products which march to the beat of Moore’s Law, the logic gate counts of most mixed signal and analog products do not increase significantly from generation to generation. Consequently, analog manufacturing processes migrate much more slowly from one lithography node to the next.

Analog platforms

It would be wrong to assume that analog ICs do not improve in performance or get smaller with each subsequent generation of manufacturing process. Improvements are achieved through device architecture, integration, packaging and materials optimization of separate process technologies for specific types of products. Texas Instruments has more than 50 such process platforms running in production, manufacturing nearly 45,000 products – each process optimized for a specific family of analog semiconductors or MEMS/sensors.

  • High-speed amplifiers typically need finely tuned capacitors, resistors and SiGe bipolar processes, often with SOI substrates to reduce noise.
  • Data converters are manufactured using analog processes with precision thin-film resistors, high linearity capacitors and low noise, well-matched transistors.
  • High-voltage manufacturing processes with thick power metal are essential for building power management ICs. The voltage range of the process is tuned to the application and can vary from a few volts to several hundreds of volts.
  • Micro-controllers are manufactured on mixed-signal process technologies, with key differentiators being low power non-volatile memories and ultra-low power transistors.
  • MEMS and sensors need custom process flows and use unique equipment for deep silicon etching, back-side wafer patterning, wafer-to-wafer bonding, etc.

I have led deep sub-micron CMOS development and more recently, analog technology development. The opportunities in analog development and manufacturing are quite different. Not being limited by a single industry roadmap, there are significant opportunities to differentiate through design, process, packaging and manufacturing.

Creative ideas are welcome!

I have a mental image of speed boats versus an aircraft carrier. Instead of a large development team, the model is one of many small teams, working in parallel on different market opportunities. Two recent examples of differentiated technologies come to mind. We recently developed a fast-write, low-power, non-volatile memory called ferroelectric random access memory to enable ultra-low power mixed signal microcontrollers that consume less than half the power of equivalent flash-based devices.

In another example, TI recently integrated thermocouple elements, MEMS processing along with high precision analog data converters and amplifiers to create a single chip infrared temperature sensor.

Moreover, development is not limited by the lack of availability or the immaturity of process equipment, so time to market at high yields is quite good and the cost of setting up an analog manufacturing line is significantly lower than a CMOS line.

There are others issues as well. Besides obvious technology challenges, analog products and hence analog manufacturing processes last a long time, sometimes over 20 years. This creates years of accumulated process and design IP, PDKs, libraries and Spice models that have to be maintained, updated and continuously improved. Also, managing the diversity of process technologies and products across many factories can be a logistical challenge – or a differentiator for those that do it well.

When it comes to analog, whoever coined the term “more than Moore’s Law” couldn’t have said it better.



3 Responses to “Demise of analog is exaggerated”

  1. Peter Bradbeer May 15, 2015 at 4:36 pm #

    Your post prompted a circa 1980’s memory of being asked what I did for a living to which my response was “I am an analogue circuit designer”. The questioner tilted his head at my response and said “Oh isn’t analogue rather out of date/redundant?” I can’t remember what I said but I remember thinking how fast an analogue circuit could multiply quantities compared with a digital abacus :>). I have yet to see a quality TV documentary about the wonders of electronics and wonder just why probably the most pervasive technology touching most people on the planet is not understood at the most basic of levels by the populus. I am heartened to see your blog on the subject in a place where non-nerds hang out too:>)


    • iExpressBlog May 15, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

      I can totally relate with you, Peter, as I am an Electronic engineer with specialization in Analog/RF IC design. The most awkward situation is when people ask what you do and you explain to a layman with an example of cellphone. And, they end up believing that you repair cell phones! Gosh!


    • iExpressBlog May 15, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

      Thanks for visiting my blog. I appreciate your feedback 🙂


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