It's been almost four years since we first started talking about 3D ICs and the opportunities that could be found from stacking. Granted, at the time (2011) of our initial, serious consideration of the impact of 3D architecture, Intel was just coming out with its 22nm tri-gate transistor for Ivy Bridge – yeah, that does seem like a long time ago now!
When we look at how far component architectures and designs have come since 2011, and the incredible changes as we are now looking at testing 10nm nodes, the breakthrough for 3D structures has taken much longer. While 3D structures are still growing and tackling challenges, there's been greater progress for 3D NAND than other component types as Brent Topa discussed again in January regarding TLC and planar NAND structures. We particularly see the advances and opportunities that 3D and related structures have offered in SSD improvements, such as we saw last summer with Samsung's 3D V-NAND technology.
We are also seeing more dedicated, collaborative discussions around improving and extending the opportunities already captured through stacking and 3D structures. One recent example of the growing, collaborative discussions to promote innovation happened last fall during the first Advanced Packaging and Integration Technology Symposium, August 28, 2014, in Wuxi, China, hosted by Yole Développement and the National Center for Advanced Packaging (NCAP). Coming out of the symposium, and as we see more generally in the industry, 3D ICs are still very much the domain of high-end applications and, as Topa reminds us, SSD and leading-edge NAND solutions. The question asked repeatedly last fall was, when will Consumer Electronics (CE) follow and bring the volume demand to really propel 3D innovation and adoption?
Wearables shrink the field
Switching perspectives slightly, and in considering the question of CE adoption of 3D IC solutions, there are many of us looking at the building wave of wearables and IoT devices as just the answer to the above question. Even last fall, although the wearable devices categories were very much on people's radar, I think the current, growing buzz and consumer interest lies in seamless connectivity; a connecticity where a smartphone becomes the cumbersome device that early laptops were and wearables are the new hot item. The demand for truly unobtrusive wearable devices that perform a set (or one day many sets) of tasks is powerful and growing. There is little satisfaction among consumers for single scope fitness trackers that cannot multi-task. That requirement demands new packaging (System in Package) and similar architectures which, in turn, point to a rise in 3D structure demands.
Cost is the question still to be answered for 3D ICs, but perhaps as a new category of devices pushes the price envelope up a bit, the opportunity to implement more varied 3D IC solutions will present itself and, over time, the volume demand will push down the current costs and reduce barriers. With Apple's Watch rumored to hit the market in April, just two months away, it will likely be the most prominent and highly demanded new wearable in the first half of 2015. It will also not be a low-cost device, setting the stage for a price range that will open the doors for many new devices based on similar leading-edge components and architectures to be adopted by other wearables.
We saw a huge selection of wearables and innovative devices at International CES 2015 last month, next up will be Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, March 2-6, 2015. With all of the momentum around smaller footprint devices and the expansion of consumer wearable technology, this year is likely to hold the key to unlock wider adoption of 3D structures, particularly for the CE segment.