Much of the public discussion in technology focuses on megatrends in software and applications. It can be easy to overlook the fact that the current global shift toward digital transformation is being powered by hardware that competes with DNA in size and complexity. When the transistor was first invented in 1947, it was roughly the size of a deck of cards. Today, approximately one billion transistors can be placed on an area the size of a postage stamp. The equipment and software used by the semiconductor industry to create this technology is some of the most sophisticated in the world.
Materials engineering is the backbone for the semiconductor industry, and we have developed many unique materials and manufacturing techniques to continue to shrink transistors. The same technologies we have built to make smaller, more complex transistors now have the ability to transform everything from AR/VR, to 3D printing, to advanced coatings for jet engines. Never has the incentive been stronger for emerging technology companies to look at the semiconductor industry as leading edge partners for defining and building the digital future.
The first part of this story is about how materials are the building blocks to deliver better, faster, cheaper, and more efficient products. At first glance, a commercial jet engine and semiconductor equipment would seem to have nothing in common. In reality, there are numerous commonalities between what happens inside these two machines. Making an integrated circuit is an incredibly complicated and tightly controlled process. As a result, semiconductor equipment must operate reliably and consistently for thousands of hours. The environment inside a semiconductor chamber is harsh - potentially exceeding 1,000 degrees celsius with continuous exposure to highly corrosive or oxidizing gases, while rotating wafers at up to 1,000 RPM. Similarly, the hot section of a jet engine has extreme temperatures, oxidation, and corrosion while rotating at thousands of RPM. And like semiconductor chambers, jet engines need to run reliably and consistently for thousands of hours. It is not surprising that many engineers at Applied Materials (Applied) have spent time in both of these industries.
"Materials engineering is the backbone for the semiconductor industry, and we have developed many unique materials and manufacturing techniques to continue to shrink transistors"
At Applied, we have developed unique coatings and chamber materials to meet customer specifications on uptime and process control under the most severe conditions. For example, we use ceramic coatings in a variety of process equipment to enable improved device performance, while also extending preventative maintenance cycles. The aerospace industry also relies on unique coatings and materials today. By closely engaging with the aerospace industry, we have seen that Applied has multiple technologies in our portfolio that can help the aerospace industry enhance fuel efficiency, reduce maintenance, and extend component life. For example, if we can improve fuel efficiency by one percent, it could be worth $2B annually to the airline industry.
The second part of the story is about how a semiconductor company could stretch itself enough to learn about something in a totally new industry. At Applied, we use a growth process developed over decades to identify high value problems and identify ways we can solve them. In the case of coatings, our contact with the aerospace industry started when we were trying to solve one of our own problems. Because chamber environments get hotter and more reactive with every generation, we knew we needed to look outside our own walls for solutions. We met with aerospace industry leaders and academics to learn about the solved challenges with surfaces. In addition, we joined the Center for Thermal Spray Research (CTSR) at Stony Brook University, an organization that has been key to developing novel thermal spray processes for many industries, including aerospace. In this process, we learned how the industry worked, the requirements for new coatings, and got an idea of what problems they were facing. Digging deeper, we prioritized customer high value problems (HVPs) by what would provide them with the greatest value and were the hardest for them to solve: differentiated performance at the top, improved manufacturing yield next, and cost improvement last (but still important). With technical experts in the company, we identified which HVPs we could address. Today, we are engaged in several areas with the aerospace industry to enable them to meet their roadmaps. We have also discovered areas where others have complimentary skillsets and have made strategic investments in startups such as Norsk Titanium, a leader in additive manufacturing for aerospace. As we continue forward, we believe that we can tackle more HVPs and expand our footprint into many new markets by leveraging our sophisticated materials engineering capabilities.
The benefits of this cross-industry development are clear, but creating fertile grounds for collaboration requires thinking creatively about partnership mechanisms and incentive structures. This is particularly difficult in an industry and value chain that has seen much consolidation over the past 30 years. To combat this, Applied has embraced an open innovation model to attract and cultivate non-traditional partners from industry, academia, and government. We recognize that difficult problems are most often solved by teams and have developed the tools, process, and culture to help them succeed. Ceramic coatings are just one technology that we look forward to applying in new spaces. We will continue to collaborate with leading edge partners to define and build the digital future.
Check out: Semiconductor Review