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The semiconductor crisis is not just about semiconductors; It is also about substrates: what are they and why without them we would not have chips

Substrates are the “ugly duckling” of the semiconductor industry. Traditionally they have received much less attention than the components that shape the core of integrated circuits even from the semiconductor manufacturers themselves. The profit margin they leave is much lower than that of the other components of the chips, which has caused that the necessary investment to make its development possible it has been stagnant for a long time.

What is surprising is that relatively unexpectedly, the semiconductor crisis has forced integrated circuit manufacturers to give the substrate the attention it should never have lost. This statement from Nicholas Stukan, the director of business development at Zhuhai Access Semiconductor, a South China substrate manufacturer, reflects with striking clarity the prominence it has acquired this component for the last few months:

“Now all you have to do is say that you make substrates. And you already have the business done. It’s crazy, ”confesses Stukan. No substrate, no chip, and without a chip there is no business. The current demand for substrates is much higher than the supply, especially if we stick to those used in the production of highly integrated semiconductors, including, for example, the microprocessors and GPUs in our computers and smartphones. And this panorama places this industry in a very delicate position.

Substrate 1

The current demand for substrates is much higher than the supply, which has placed the semiconductor industry in a very delicate position from which it does not appear that it will escape in the short term.

What is a substrate and why is it so important

The substrate is a sheet of solid material that has a double responsibility depending on the type of chip and the process in which it is to intervene: to offer the necessary structural support to be able to produce and manipulate the integrated circuit, and also act as a mechanical and electrical interface between it and the devices with which it must communicate.

The material used in its manufacture depends on the use that is going to be given to it, but resins, glass or flexible polycarbonates are usually used as a base compound. And of course, also metals, such as silicon dioxide, aluminum oxide, gallium arsenide, or germanium.

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As we will conclude in the next section of the article, manufacturing them is not as complex as it is to produce high integration circuits, but, even so, it is necessary to use sophisticated equipment and strictly respect very demanding processes from a qualitative point of view.

Without going any further, the manufacture of silicon wafers, in which we can inquire in another article if it seems an interesting topic, requires very precise control the purity of the material. And, in addition, it involves special furnaces known as reactors, extremely precise cutting circular saws and grinding machines that are responsible for eliminating surface imperfections in the cut, among other advanced instruments that can help us to intuit the complexity of this process.

Substrate 2
Substrate 2

Its manufacture is not as complex as that of high integration circuits, but the production of substrates also requires carrying out very strict quality controls that can only be carried out by qualified technicians.

The imbalance between demand and supply has put manufacturers on the ropes

For many years investment in substrates has been reduced due to the moderate profit they leave, so that the current situation, in which the demand for semiconductors has exploded, has caused companies with the size of Intel, GlobalFoundries or TSMC , among others, are striving at all costs to get hold of the stock they need to maintain your manufacturing volume.

They are even forging alliances with substrate manufacturers with whom they had no commercial ties until now. This pressure has meant that for the first time in a decade Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s new CEO, has been forced to tackle this problem during one of the last meetings he has held with the top management of the company he leads. But this is not all.

This executive has predicted that a shadow looms over the future of substrates that exacerbates the deficit that is already collapsing industries that depend to a greater or lesser extent on the production of integrated circuits. According to Gelsinger, the enormous investment that is necessary to make to start up new factories of integrated circuits and substrates, and the time that must be invested in this process, will cause the deficit of both components lasts for two more years.

The time has come for us in the West to put the batteries and invest in the construction of new factories of semiconductors and substrates

Nothing seems to indicate that the imbalance between supply and demand that has placed us in this situation will expire before 2023, and users are not emerging from this crisis unscathed. Fabricate a substrate it’s not that complex how to produce a highly integrated chip, and the equipment involved in this process is not as expensive as the AMSL machines that most semiconductor manufacturers use to fine-tune their integrated circuits.

The problem is that, as Gelsinger explains, the construction and set-up of the facilities necessary to manufacture the substrates require investment at least one year. In fact, two years is a much more realistic period even in this context of such urgency. Samsung Electro-Mechanics, Ibiden and Unimicron Technology are three of the largest substrate manufacturers on the planet, and they are all in Asia.

It seems that the time has come for us in the West to step up and invest in the construction of new semiconductor and substrate factories. Otherwise we run the risk that this scenario of acute crisis is repeated. And it would be an unforgivable mistake to stumble twice on the same stone.

Images | TSMC