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Is Apple set to shake analogue market?

Posted: 13 Jan 2016 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Apple? analogue? manufacturing? power management? CMOS?

It still remains a mystery what Apple will do with the 70,000-square foot analogue production line it recently bought from Maxim. But the iPhone company's extraordinary ability to get semiconductor suppliers to develop new devices for them, in fact, its ability to swallow entire companies without even belching, suggests Apple could influence the analogue market for years to come.

So it's worth asking what Apple is currently doing in analogue, what improvements would help them and how many of those improvements are manufacturing related.

We know the North First Street facility includes chip manufacturing equipment from Applied Materials, Hitachi, Novellus and ASML. The fab will produce roughly 7,000 8in wafers a month at geometries from 0.6?m down to 90nm. Note: The sweet spot for analogue manufacturing is still in the 0.35?m to 0.18?m range.

We also know that Apple has been buying an estimated $2 to $2.5 billion a year in analogue parts for its phones and tablets. The bulk of these parts include custom-made power management ICs (PMICs), less-custom audio codecs and a variety of sensors including motion sensors and touch-sensitive screens. If we were placing bets on which of the three part types Apple will tweak in the new facility, power management looks like the low-hanging fruit. No matter how cleverly crafted, the analogue parts can turn into multi-sourced commodities. But shrinking power management functions remains a challenge.

Power chip integration

With its Haswell-generation processors, for instance, Intel attempted to integrate power management functions onto the CPU. Its goal was to shrink the amount of space the PC motherboard devotes to power and cooling, and thus enable new miniaturised PC form factors. But machines that move dozens of amperes around are not easily shrunken, and Intel reverted back to more traditional Vcore regulator architectures.

In the case of mobile devices, the PMICs are custom-configured for each phone or tablet, and, depending on the feature set of the phone, can be quite complicated. There are as many 26 or 28 separate devices on one chip, including two or three 300mA switch-mode regulators, 22 or 24 low-drop out regulators (LDOs), a lithium-Ion battery charge monitor controller and several LED backlight drivers. Apple uses Dialog Semiconductor as the supplier for these parts.

It takes a lot of hard work, rather than any special tricks, to do this integration: You want the LDOs and other voltage controllers to sequence devices on-and-off (or to clock them down) in response to commands from the cell phone applications and baseband processors.

The BiCMOS or BCD processes used to implant power transistors on a CMOS substrates are now well-known, even among the Asia-based foundries that needed to unlearn memory manufacturing to serve analogue clients. The power transistor implants buffer the power sources (batteries or AC adapters) from the CMOS control logic fabricated in 0.18?m or 0.13?m CMOS. We bet money that the fabrication facility Apple acquires from Maxim includes a transistor implant mechanism.

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