Chiplets promise to help reinstate Moore’s Law

28 Apr 2020

Moore’s Law may not be dead, but at 55 years old, it’s certainly feeling its age, with the pace of semiconductor manufacturing advancement decelerating in recent years. However, a new approach to semiconductor design and integration has arrived: the chiplet, which promises to help restore the microchip industry to its historic rate of advancement.

The global market for processor microchips that utilize chiplets in their manufacturing process is set to expand to $5.8 billion in 2024, rising by a factor of nine from $645 million in 2018, according Omdia.


Restoring Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a single silicon chip doubles every two years due to the continuous advancement of semiconductor manufacturing technology. However, in recent years, the pace of doubling has slowed to about two-and-a-half years as semiconductor production processes have encountered physical limitations at extremely small sizes.

Chiplets effectively bypass Moore’s Law by replacing a single silicon die with multiple smaller dice that work together in a unified packaged solution. This approach provides much more silicon to add transistors compared to a monolithic microchip. As a result, chiplets are expected to allow a return to the two-year doubling cycle that has underpinned the economics of the semiconductor business since 1965.

“When semiconductor pioneer Gordon Moore first published his theory about semiconductor advancement, he provided a key forecasting benchmark that set a development cycle for the entire tech industry,” said Tom Hackenberg, principal analyst, embedded processors, at Omdia. “From software developers, to system designers, to tech investors, everyone for decades counted on the swift two-year schedule defined by Moore’s Law. With the arrival of chiplets, the semiconductor business and those that depend upon it now have the opportunity to return to the customary rate of progress that has driven so much economic value for the overall tech industry.”

Chiplets receive a warm welcome from microprocessor suppliers

Chiplets are experiencing adoption in more advanced and highly integrated semiconductor devices, i.e., microprocessors (MPUs), system-on-chip (SOC) devices, graphics processing units (GPUs) and programmable logic devices (PLDs). The MPU segment represents the largest single market for chiplets among different microchip product types. The global market with chiplet-enabled MPUs is expected to expand to $2.4 billion in 2024, up from $452 million in 2018.

“To remain competitive, MPU makers must always stick to the cutting edge of semiconductor manufacturing technologies,” Hackenberg said. “These companies have the most to lose from the slowdown in Moore’s Law. Because of this, these companies are among the earliest adopters of chiplets and are likely to be the primary contributors to chiplet standardization efforts.”

MPU suppliers such as Intel and AMD are the early innovators building proprietary advanced packaging chiplets. Intel is also a member of the Open Compute Project, Open Domain-Specific Architecture (OCP ODSA) foundation, which is promoting the development of standards and technologies that are helping to enable advanced packaging strategies.

With the early adoption in MPUs, the computing segment is expected to be the dominant application market for chiplets through 2024. Computing will account for 96 percent of revenue in 2020 and 92 percent by 2024.

Chiplets set for $57 billion in revenue by 2035

Over the longer term, Omdia expects chiplet revenue to continue to expand and reach $57 billion in revenue by 2035.

Much of this growth will be driven by chiplets that serve as heterogenous processors, i.e., chips that combine different processing elements, such as applications processors that integrate graphics, security engines, artificial intelligence (AI) acceleration, low-power internet of things (IoT) controllers and more.

“Chiplets may not single-handedly save Moore’s Law, but they do represent an innovative, emerging approach that help advance new packaging technologies, new design strategies and new materials,” Hackenberg said. “This exciting new approach also may enable a more competitive landscape with diverse contributors. Chiplets will bolster the cadence Moore conveyed in his original 1965 article. The import of that original statement was not really about how microprocessors grow in performance. Rather, it was about establishing an industry guideline for a cadence that system designers, software developers and investors could count on to drive the innovation engine. This is the aspect of Moore’s Law that will live on.”

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