At a press tour of Analog Devices (ADI)’s Catalyst facility in Limerick, Ireland, the semiconductor specialist walked visitors through numerous tech demonstrations, from telco innovations to connected cars
Geopolitics and the semiconductor subsidy boom
Last month, semiconductor specialist ADI announced it would be investing €630 million to expand its operations in its European HQ in Limerick, Ireland. The influx of funding is set to triple the site’s fabrication capacity over the coming two years, as well as expanding the site’s workforce by around 600 people.
The funding comes as part of the European Union’s Important Projects of Common European Interest on Microelectronics and Communication Technologies (IPCEI ME/CT) initiative, one of a number of funding schemes designed to help develop Europe’s domestic chip industry. Undoubtedly the most significant of these schemes is the European Chips Act, which pledges to deliver over €43 billion of project-driven investment until 2030, with the ultimate goal of increasing Europe’s semiconductor production capacity to 20% of the global market.
This surge in European investment has led to a boom in European semiconductor projects, drawing interest from major players like TSMC, Samsung, and Intel. Indeed, just earlier this week, Intel announced a $32 billion investment to open two chip fabs in Germany, as well as another $4.6 billion to build a fab in Poland – all of which are being subsidised with EU and government funding.
But for ADI’s head of Systems & Technology, Cloud & Communications, Joe Barry, this geopolitical focus on chip technology and the resulting funding is no reason to change strategy.
“We were one of the first companies to secure some of the funding really targeted at building up wafer fabrication in Europe. This is definitely driven by the desire to have more resilience and control,” explained Barry. “But while the funding is nice, this doesn’t really affect our strategy. We operate on a hybrid manufacturing model, where we have our own manufacturing but outsource certain pieces. We’ll continue to do this as we continue to scale to meet rising demand.”
ADI’s Catalyst Centre shows the scope of cross-industry innovation
Following the announcement of ADI’s new investment in Limerick, journalists were last week invited to take a tour of the adjoining ADI Catalyst Centre – a €100 million ‘collaboration accelerator’ launched last year as a focal point for customers, business partners, and suppliers to co-create new solutions with the semiconductor specialist.
The tour shone light the enormous breadth industries impacted by ADI’s technology, including telecoms solutions, automotive advances, wearables/extended reality consumer devices, and smart factory tech.
In the telecoms space, key demonstrations included an open radio unit (O-RU) reference design platform, including ADI’s fifth generation 8T8R RadioVerse® System on Chip (SoC), which offers customers an end-to-end solution that allows for hardware and software customisation for macro and small cell RUs.
ADI suggests that this comprehensive reference design will help accelerate the development of Open RAN solutions and promote the evolution of Open RAN ecosystem.
The company also had its chip technology on show in the context of 5G Massive MIMO (multiple input multiple output). Working alongside Marvell Technology, the latest MIMO solution demonstrated power savings of 40% versus competing solutions, not only making the solution more sustainable, but also considerably lighter, allowing for faster deployment.
Key to these energy savings was the solution’s microsleep capabilities. According to ADI, 20% of telco base stations carry 80% of network traffic at any one time, meaning large portions of the network are consuming power while unused. By rapidly switching these elements of the RU on and off as needed, as well as optimising scheduling, sites can ultimately reduce their power consumption significantly.
With the RAN consuming between 70% and 80% of the network’s total power usage, its clear to see how widespread adoption of this technology could lead to significant cost savings for operators.
Conquering the energy challenge
Following the demonstrations, Barry explained why reducing energy consumption was such a critical focus for the company.
“Our customers’ customers are ultimately operators and whatever challenges they face are ones we face – that means energy consumption. In recent years, energy consumption has grown very significantly as an operating cost, so [the operators] are looking for ways to control that,” he said. “5G was a major step forward in terms of picojoules per bit, but when you’re facing an exponential growth curve these things catch up with you very quickly.”
Reducing power consumption is a major challenge for the semiconductor industry itself. Moore’s Law – a long-held tenant of the industry that the number of transistors in integrated circuits will double every two years as they become more complex – remains broadly accurate and these more powerful chips are typically more energy hungry.
This can be combatted in a number of ways, with Barry pointing to two areas of focus: static and dynamic power usage.
The static power consumed by the chips can be somewhat countered architecturally and algorithmically – essentially helping to optimise the power usage of the chip itself. But perhaps more important here is the dynamic savings, throttling energy usage in intelligent ways so that the device only consumes a high amount of energy when it really needs to.
“Both static and dynamic power savings are a technical challenge. Bringing down the static power requires a lot of innovation in terms of the algorithm and linearising power amplifiers to get more efficiency. Meanwhile, saving power dynamically requires turning things on and off very quickly – and high-power circuits don’t like being turned on and off very quickly! – so there’s a challenge here too in terms of efficiency and not degrading components,” he explained.
Looking to the future, these energy challenges are only going to grow as the user demand for connectivity continues to increase and we move forward towards the 6G era.
“In theory, 6G radio will potentially quadruple the number of antennas and the bandwidth used to meet the demand. If we stay on this trajectory, we’ll be looking at two-times or three-times the power consumption, which simply isn’t viable,” said Barry. “We need to innovate even more and that is an industry-wide effort. This is race we can win, but it has to be done through collaboration.”
Is the telecoms industry doing enough when it comes to building sustainable networks? Join the operators in discussion at this year’s Total Telecom Congress live in Amsterdam