By Srinath Srinivasan
With NEWS ABOUT the Tata Group planning investments of up to $300 million to set up a semiconductor assembly and test unit in India coming in, the semiconductor industry is gaining much-needed attention and momentum, especially after the chip shortage crisis that arose during the peak of the Covid-19 induced global lockdowns. India is however not new to the semiconductor business when it comes to R&D and talent supply. Some of the leading names in the computing devices businesses have already benefitted from Indian talent and one such business is Samsung Semiconductor India R&D (SSIR).
Behind some of the latest and advanced consumer and enterprise products are Indian engineers at Samsung Semiconductor India R&D. From assisting their Korean design headquarters, they have evolved to design and develop technologies ground up, which find a place in the consumer and enterprise products. The technologies Indian engineers work on range from EXYNOS semiconductor, CMOS imaging sensors which go in the consumer products like mobile phones to SATA, NVMe SSDs which are used in data centres.
“The world’s first 108MP camera that was launched two years ago was planned and created by the engineers at SSIR,” says Balajee Sowrirajan, managing director, Samsung Semiconductor India R&D Centre, who leads the SSIR India operations of the Memory, System LSI, Foundry business units. In addition to these, the R&D centre also takes care of the development of allied chips such as that of RF chips and power management chips. Currently the Indian engineers are working on three nanometer chips.
“The foundation IP is happening out of SSIR. This is a significant milestone for our centre and talent as the technology is one of the most advanced in the world today,” says Sowrirajan. The availability of talent, their strength in digital and circuit design, flexibility to be trained and the class of advanced products the experienced engineers have worked on in their careers are some important factors that has made India an attractive place for R&D, according to Sowrirajan.
In addition to brain power, India’s increasing product and enterprise needs are further making the country an attractive place to set up R&D centres and potentially fabrication and assembly plants. R&D and semiconductor fabrication are two important ecosystems in the semiconductor industry. Fabrication is largely concentrated in one region of the world, while R&D is distributed. “India has taken advantage of R&D in the past. Within Samsung, our product planning team in Korea serves as a bridge between SSIR and the fabrication units which are outside India,” he says.
The increasing mobile usage in India and the need for high computational power in them are other major reasons why India is a hotspot for chip level innovation. Today, even an entry level smartphone needs AI to stand out in the market. Many industrial applications require high computational power and Edge computing. India is also a high potential market for autonomous vehicles which require high performance localised computing power. The Covid-19 induced demand for cloud computing has attracted several players to set up data centres in India, which require computation and storage. The engineers at SSIR, who have over 450 patents granted and in the application stage have developed technologies across all these growing computational segments.
“5G is only expected to make this demand grow stronger,” says Sowrirajan. Indian engineers at SSIR are also involved in circuit design, systems design, digital design, solution qualification (testing solutions in real world conditions) and embedded software development. Product planning mindset has just set in in India. However, the fabrication ecosystem is not yet there at the same level as R&D. “Manufacturing locally in India needs unflinching government support and a strong domestic player to initiate action. It is definitely not an MNC play at the moment,” he says, when asked about Samsung’s plans of setting up large-scale fabrication facilities in India.
Setting up and running a fabrication ecosystem is behest with challenges—raw materials, resources, geo-political. However, the shortage has not affected the work at SSIR. “Our engineers are constantly working to reduce wastage and improve yield by analysing failures in semiconductor wafers. Chip shortage crisis will not delay the roll out of newer generations of technologies from SSIR,” says Sowrirajan.