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Nanoelectronics December 2020/January 2021 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Sean R. Barulich

2020: The Year in Review

Contributions by Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Special Edition: Year in Review

This special-edition Year-in-Review Viewpoints is part of a set of analyses that investigate the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on technology commercialization across six consequential technology domains: Advanced Manufacturing and Materials, AI and Automation, Clean Energy, Digital Connectivity and Lifestyles, Health Care, and Sensors and Electronics. The May 2020 Viewpoints identifies key forces that are likely to influence these technology domains. The June 2020 Viewpoints considers the future of the domains across three scenarios.

This special-edition Viewpoints describes developments in the highest-impact forces for Sensors and Electronics in 2020 and outlines likely developments for those forces in 2021. In addition, this Viewpoints highlights additional specific developments in the Nanoelectronics Technology Area during 2020 and areas to watch for in 2021.

Key Forces That Shaped Sensors and Electronics in 2020

The May 2020 Viewpoints identifies key forces across global societies that are likely to have a major influence on the six consequential technology domains. Here, we return to the forces that had the most impact on Sensors and Electronics in 2020.

  • Supply-chain dynamics. The coronavirus-disease-2019 (covid-19) pandemic tested electronics-supply-chain adaptability and flexibility. As the pandemic spread across the world, electronics vendors faced many disruptions, including factory shutdowns, rising trade tension between the United States and Chinese governments, and a much greater need for remote collaboration and automation tools to support business operations. In addition, as companies tried to account for instabilities in supply and demand, logistics operations were also seeing disruption, leading to short-term shortages across a number of electronics-industry sectors. As a result, a number of larger electronics-manufacturing companies sought to implement new technologies to streamline business operations and logistics and enable greater workflow transparency.
  • Industry 4.0 momentum. The covid-19 pandemic forced electronics manufacturers to adopt new technologies to maintain operations, support internal and external collaboration, and optimize manufacturing processes to respond to evolving product demand. Although smaller industry players hesitated to invest in new automation and data technologies because of limited capital, larger electronics-manufacturing players continued to invest in real-time data analytics technologies, new supply-chain-management systems, and various digital-innovation initiatives. In general, the pandemic accelerated digitalization and automation and encouraged advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, sensors, and automation software and led to various technology pilots.
  • Health-technology demand. Major health-care providers rushed to adopt telehealth solutions to support social distancing and expand virtual-care visits during the pandemic. Demand for telehealth services expanded significantly throughout 2020, and telehealth technologies allowed health-care providers to perform remote screening for various conditions and streamline the delivery of health-care resources. In addition, the covid-19 pandemic encouraged the development of home-health-care technologies, contact-tracing platforms, and clinical medical devices, creating a number of opportunities for developers of health-sensing wearables, health-tracking software, sensors, and video- and audio-communications technologies. Although the digitalization of health care accelerated, various projects revealed the need for accurate real-time health data to support the use of digital-health tools and artificial intelligence.
  • Consumer-sentiment turbulence. Consumer sentiment changed significantly during the pandemic, with consumers generally focusing their spending on essential goods. For example, smartphone sales during Q1 2020 declined from sales in the previous year, and many smartphone makers struggled with supply-chain issues, store closures, staff redundancies, and economic uncertainty. Leading companies—including Samsung, Apple, and Huawei—began to recover from initial losses toward the end of 2020, but sales and consumer-buying power remained relatively low because of high unemployment and lasting recessions in many markets. In addition, trade tensions between the United States and China created significant challenges for Chinese smartphone manufacturers. Although the electronics industry generally struggled throughout 2020, some consumers continued to spend money on electronics for home offices to support remote work and home entertainment during shelter-in-place measures. In addition, digital engagement increased throughout 2020, encouraging the use of gaming consoles, e-commerce applications, and digital-payment services on mobile devices.
  • Winners and losers. The pandemic and the resulting economic recession created significant opportunities and challenges for electronics manufacturers. Suppliers of automation equipment and personal-computing devices that support remote work saw new opportunities during the pandemic as companies adapted to new remote-business operations. However, suppliers of smartphone, automotive, and aviation sensors and electronics generally saw reduced revenues as component sales dropped, and device manufacturers had to modify production strategies to account for potential disruptions. Progress in research and development efforts were mixed: Companies dropped some projects, but larger companies with reserve capital continued to develop innovative electronics for computing, sensing, and wireless communications. Notably, telecommunications companies proceeded with 5G-technology rollouts, and a number of smartphone manufacturers launched devices that support 5G cellular networks.

Additional Developments in Nanoelectronics in 2020

As well as the forces affecting the wider sensors-and-electronics industry in 2020, multiple developments specific to nanoelectronics are noteworthy.

  • Quantum-computing innovation. Several leading players announced major advances in the field of quantum computing in 2020. For example:
    • Google performed large-scale chemical simulations using a quantum computer—demonstrating how the technology could one day find a practical use.
    • D-Wave announced the launch of a new quantum-based cloud service that enables users to create and implement hybrid quantum applications with real-world impact.
    • IonQ announced details of its 32-qubit system that exhibits a quantum volume (an overall measure of quantum performance) of more than 4 million.
  • Business dynamics. Covid-19-related disruptions limited many nanoelectronics business developments in 2020. However, important events included STMicroelectronics' purchase of the French gallium nitride company Exagan—accelerating the implementation of its power-electronics road map. Another important announcement includes Agfa's purchase of Clariant's nanosilver conductive ink portfolio.
  • Transistor scaling. Cerebras announced the fabrication of the world's largest computer chip. It measures 8.5 inches to a side and holds 1.2 trillion transistors. In comparison, the next-largest chip (produced by Nvidia) is only 1 inch to a side and houses 54 billion transistors.
  • Data-storage collaboration. Fifteen companies and institutions (including Microsoft, Western Digital, Twist Bioscience, and Illumina) joined forces to create the DNA Data Storage Alliance—a consortium that aims to advance the commercial prospects of the technology.

Look for These Developments in 2021

What to Watch for in Sensors and Electronics in 2021

  • Normalized remote work. The covid-19 pandemic and the increasing adoption of technologies that support remote work have normalized remote work and encouraged digitalization across a wide range of industries. Leading US technology firms—including Facebook, Google, and Salesforce—have already committed to extending remote-work operations until summer 2021, and many companies expect to hire and retain additional permanent remote workers. Global shelter-in-place measures promise to lead to lasting demand for electronics that support remote work, online education, telehealth, and automation, creating opportunities for electronics suppliers and technology firms.
  • Pandemic-response innovations and privacy concerns. Investments in contact-tracing technologies, temperature-sensing cameras, and artificial-intelligence tools may yield new opportunities in the coming years but may also create various data-privacy and surveillance risks as technologies see application in public spaces. Although such developments could enable new opportunities in smart city infrastructure and building automation, new data-privacy challenges may arise. Privacy regulations will play a key role in the development of data-powered technologies that carefully balance privacy and safety.
  • Rough recoveries. Companies may require many years to recover from supply-chain and consumer-demand disruptions that developed throughout the pandemic. However, companies that demonstrated perseverance and adaptability during the pandemic will likely have more resilient supply chains and benefit from expanded investments into digital and automation technologies. Ultimately, the ongoing economic recession may entrench industry leaders and drive the electronics-manufacturing industry toward localized and decentralized production. Small and medium-size electronics-component suppliers will likely struggle to recover in 2021 and place their development and production focus on potential high-demand markets including health care, telecommunications, and industrial automation.
  • Postcoronavirus opportunities. Newly adopted economic initiatives may stimulate the economy and reinvigorate consumer buying power, creating new opportunities for electronics manufacturers. In particular, clean-energy initiatives and 5G-telecommunications technology rollouts promise one path toward economic recovery for electronics-component vendors. In addition, the acceleration of automation and digitalization that occurred in 2020 is likely to create various opportunities for electronics vendors that can support automation and supply components for robotics, industrial Internet of Things devices, and networking equipment, especially for sectors such as health care, government, and defense. Industry investment into automation technologies and software promises to enable decentralized and optimized supply chains that can better respond to disruptive events such as pandemics and natural disasters.

Additional Items to Watch for in Nanoelectronics in 2021

  • Quantum computing. IBM announced plans to evolve from its existing 65-qubit system to a >1,000-qubit online quantum computer capable of delivering a quantum advantage by 2023.
  • Flexible electronics. Further advances will take place in the field of thinned silicon, enabling flexible integrated circuits based on standard silicon technology.
  • Health technology. Reacting to the covid-19 pandemic, companies will focus attention on the development of medical sensors based on nanoelectronics that can find use in the detection or diagnosis of viral infections and will be in greater demand.
  • Data storage. Samsung will be the first of the three major dynamic-random-access-memory suppliers (the other two being SK Hynix and Micron) to introduce extreme ultraviolet-fabrication technology. This advance will maintain the validity of Moore's law for the medium-term future.
  • Transistor scaling. Samsung will ramp up the rollout of its gate-all-around transistors, with a view to bringing products to market in 2022. This rollout would see TSMC losing its industry-leading position. Intel is not far behind and should introduce the technology in 2024.
  • Displays. Quantum-dot organic-light-emitting-diode displays will compete with established white OLED technology in the high-end television market.