What surprised the industry in 2018? While business has been strong, markets are changing, product categories are shifting and clouds are forming on the horizon.
As 2018 comes to a close, most companies are pretty happy with the way everything turned out. Business has been booming, new product categories developing, and profits are meeting or beating market expectations. “2018 was indeed an exciting year for semiconductors, with growth in almost every sector and application,” notes Tom Wong, director of marketing for design IP atCadence. “According to WSTS, worldwide semiconductor revenue will hit approximately $478 billion in 2018. This is an increase of 15.9% from 2017.”
New technologies are becoming mainstream. “2018 was surprisingly surprising,” says Thomas Uhrmann, director of business development at EV Group. “It was a strong year across a wide swath of technology. Optical sensing was very strong, but that was expected. The first major products are booming in the market now. Apple’s face ID had a large impact on this market. Customers are now forming consortia right and trying to prepare for the future.”
However, the warning signs on the horizon are growing. Capital spending is slowing, inventory is rising, and a trade war with China shows no sign of abatement. All of those can be highly damaging. Nobody wants to talk publicly about those possibilities yet, but they are beginning to tilt the outlook for 2019.Artificial intelligence
Meanwhile, in 2018, artificial Intelligence (AI) is perhaps the buzzword for the year. Lauro Rizzatti, a verification consultant agrees. “Artificial intelligence,machine learning (ML) anddeep learning became the industry’s words of the year in 2018 and created intriguing areas where startups are making inroads in innovative ways. Neural network acceleration, for example, got a lift from a software stack that sits atop anFPGA, optimizing its performance and concealing the FPGA programming from the user to ease deployment.”
Nobody gets an award for having seen this trend. “We were right that AI would rapidly expand to consume all industry sectors, but this wasn’t a hard one to predict―AI is ‘the’ hot topic in technology,” says Simon Forrest, director of Connectivity & Connected Home at Imagination Technologies . “Cloud AI has certainly made strides in 2018, but many companies also used AI in name alone as a massive marketing tool. Many are not using AI in the truest sense of the word. The majority are exploiting pattern-matching algorithms alongside big data analytics, then claiming it as AI. This resulted in ‘IoT’ largely being replaced by ‘smart technology’, with that smartness implying some form of AI.”
The fall of another area also is helping. “In 2018, we saw the slowdown in bitcoin mining and its impact on the foundry and crypto SoC business,” says Wong. “But don’t worry, the industry is very resilient and is already moving to the next big thing―ML/AI SoCs. Just look at the VC activities in the U.S. and China and you will get the picture.”
The rise in development of special accelerator chips for the Cloud is also interesting. These chips defy the rules in some sense because they are being designed and built to sell services offered by the same company that is developing them.
But not everything was great in 2018. “It’s fair to say that augmented reality (AR) didn’t really move forward much in 2018,” says Forrest. “Mass market adoption of AR glasses depends on the need to be reasonably priced. The glasses themselves also need to be sleeker in design, while issues with battery life still need to be addressed. The potential is certainly there for AR, but its success is unfortunately tied into the success of wearable displays in general and will get thwarted somewhat in 2019 by the continued disillusionment with virtual reality (VR).”
Wong agrees. “AR/VR did not quite make it to the party. While a few high-end phones support AR/VR, most of them are still a work in progress.”
Everyone knows that mobile phones are no longer the growth leader, but 2018 was the wakeup call on that front. “I had predicted smartphone shipments would reach 1.6 billion units in 2018, compared to worldwide shipments of 1.472 billion units in 2017,” says Wong. “Unfortunately, the market was not that kind. Right now, it appears the smartphone market will close 2018 with worldwide shipments of about 1.5 billion units. I thought we would have some growth in 2018, but worldwide unit shipments were flat. This is clear confirmation that the worldwide smartphone market is saturated. Even in China, unit sales in 2018 came in below unit shipments in 2017. We also witnessed a change in ranking for top-tier suppliers and saw a strong showing by Vivo, OPPO and Xiaomi in China. All of these mid-priced Chinese smartphones have really good industrial designs and premium features. I had predicted Xiaomi would go public in 2018 with a valuation of $60 billion (USD). Well, Xiaomi did go public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange during the summer of 2018, but at a valuation of $54 billion.”
2018 brought major change to foundries, as well. “The most interesting news this year is the announcement byGlobalFoundries that they are stop development of 7nm and any advanced node after 7nm,” says Navraj Nandra, senior director of product marketing for the Solutions Group atSynopsys. “In the past there was always Intel, GF, Samsung, TSMC, with fairly well mapped out development paths. GF has said it is expensive and that they were not seeing the return.”
The industry has been talking about an increasing percentage of designs staying on older nodes.“GlobalFoundries has seen a sweet spot for their business at 14nm and 28nm/22nm, especially withFD-SOI,” adds Nandra. “They have found a niche in specialty technologies, and the mainstreamfinFET node right now is 16/14/12. GF is a substantial provider at that node. Analog and RF will become their focus. The opportunity is rich with all of the interest in IoT (edge or Industrial) that use these types of technologies. Automotive there are customers wanting 28nm, and FD-SOI is interesting here.”
Competition is heating up on older nodes, as well, as both demand and capacity continue to grow. “China is still behind in semiconductors,” says EV Group’s Uhrmann. “A lot of fabs are being built and a lot of 300mm capacity is coming online. We are seeing China acquire a lot of technologies. People are getting worried about a trade war, and so are reconsidering joint ventures. We already see a lot of our customers re-concentrating efforts back to the U.S.”
With foundries revamping old nodes, the rate at which new processes are being released is accelerating. Many of these are focused on particular industries, such asIoT or automotive. This is putting a strain on theIP industry.
“In the past you were developing one USB that covered multiple market segments or one DDR,” explains Nandra. “You now have a dedicated USB 2 for IoT and one for consumer of mobile. And if you look at how the IP is designed, even though the electrical specifications are the same, the actual layout looks different. It is no longer a certainty that if you build a piece of IP on a certain process that you will get a lot of customers.”The IP industry itself is being shaken up by the introduction of the RISC-V open source instruction-set architecture (ISA). “I tend to underestimate how big momentum is,” says Krste Asanovic, professor at UC Berkeley and chief architect forSiFive. “Even though I am enthusiastic and believe that it is doing really well, it always