[Viewpoint] A showdown over semiconductors

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[Viewpoint] A showdown over semiconductors

The semiconductor industry is the cash cow for the Korean economy. Half of the trade surplus comes from semiconductor exports. On May 4, the American technology company Intel presented a 3-D transistor and announced that it will go into commercial production by the end of the year.

Intel is the biggest semiconductor manufacturer in the world. Naturally, the U.S. media, including The New York Times, made a big deal out of the new product, calling it “the biggest evolutionary development since the transistor was invented 50 years ago.” In contrast, the response of Korean media and companies was lukewarm. Korean media covered the story based on the press release by Intel.

Financial analysts specializing in the semiconductor industry remain prudent and want to wait until the new product hits the market. Samsung Electronics CEO Choi Ji-seong gave assurances that Korean companies do not need to worry about the new invention.

Semiconductor experts have mixed opinions. A number of electronic engineering professors at Seoul National University responded conservatively and held off their reviews on the new product until it is commercialized. They said that the 3-D transistor has been researched for 10 years, and there have been predictions that the 3-D transistor will be introduced someday.

The question was who will introduce the 3-D transistor and when? Seoul National University professors said that going 3-D first does not necessarily mean there is an advantage because the new technology requires a complicated and expensive process. One view is if the Korean semiconductor industry can maintain its competitiveness and profitability with existing technology, it will be the best solution.

Professor Choi Yang-gyu at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has a different view. In fact, the key player in 3-D transistor development is Korean. As a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, Choi developed the first 3-D semiconductor in the world.

In a phone interview, his first reaction was, “The time has finally come.” Choi said that a 3-D transistor is an unavoidable direction of evolution for the future of the semiconductor industry. He emphasized that there is no other alternative to enhance the degree of integration and to reduce the wire width to less than 20 nanometers.

When asked whether 3-D semiconductor production requires more complicated and expensive equipment and facilities, he replied, “There is a misunderstanding. The 3-D transistors can be produced by modifying existing facilities.” Will a 3-D transistor be faster and be able to prevent data entanglement? He claims, “Processing speed is faster, and data entanglement will be reduced. However, the biggest strength of the 3-D transistor is that the usage of stand-by power will be reduced.”

Intel wants to focus its 3-D transistors on application processors (AP) for mobile devices. Intel is the leader in the computer processing unit (CPU) but its products consume too much power for general use in mobile devices. Samsung Electronics and the British technology company ARM have dominated the AP market but Intel is about to strike back with its low energy-consuming 3-D transistor.

The problem is that the battle won’t be limited to the AP market. As the 3-D transistor has many advantages, the introduction will lead to an all-out semiconductor war in D-RAM, flash memory and CPU markets.

Samsung Electronics is a formidable company. It has been constantly developing and researching the 3-D transistor while its efforts were not publicized. The capacity of Samsung Electronics is an open secret among experts. For the last four years, Samsung has been publishing first-class papers on international high-speed integrated circuit industry journals. And it has been learned that Samsung has made various 3-D semiconductor models and measured yields. Samsung Electronics proudly claims that it has already accumulated considerable research results in the 3-D transistor.

Of course, the cost to maintain the top spot is growing for Samsung. The future is not guaranteed unless it displays speedy management and accurate direction. Apple has started to keep a distance from Samsung by hiring its own semiconductor specialists for its mobile device. And Intel is challenging the market leader with the new 3D technology. Samsung is competing against some of the most prominent industry leaders in the world.

Maybe because of the intensifying competition, Chairman Lee Kun-hee has not failed to arrive on time at Samsung headquarters in Seocho-dong this month. Even a threat to blow up the building couldn’t stop him from coming to work. It is no coincidence that Chairman Lee started to make regular appearances just as Apple and Intel made a challenging move. We should keep an eye on his feet, not his mouth. His footsteps to the office signal the looming showdown in the global semiconductor industry.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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