At the PCIM 2016 show in Germany, Europe’s leading power electronics event, semiconductor vendors, component suppliers, and distributors were all on hand to promote their latest products for a myriad of end-user applications. Visitors included anyone with an interest in power electronics, intelligent motion, renewable energy and energy management.
Following are the highlights of the show, including some new product releases, the status of the semiconductor materials battle, and the end-user applications driving current and future market growth.
SiC and GaN semiconductor developers continue to make headlines
For the past few years, the news headlines have been filled with technology announcements by silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) startups, and this year’s show was no exception. There are signs of greater maturity among the SiC and GaN players. For example, more-established manufacturers are now progressing from introducing their products to demonstrating practical applications using their chips in practical customer equipment. The more recent startups, which have yet to start mass production, are now defining their targeted development application sectors.
The more significant new product launches included the first SiC MOSFETs from Infineon Technologies, new full SiC power modules from ROHM Semiconductor and Wolfspeed (a Cree, Inc. company), and very competitively-priced 650V SiC JFETs from United Silicon Carbide, Inc.
There is evidence that the benefits offered by SiC and GaN power semiconductors are increasingly being recognized by customers. Design engineers from OEM/ODMs are now proactively asking chip suppliers for products that provide power-conversion efficiency gains and smaller system foot prints. According to IHS, the SiC and GaN power semiconductor market is estimated to surpass $1 billion by 2020.
Mergers and acquisitions don’t distract designers
The number of mergers and acquisitions in the semiconductor industry have been at record levels for the last two years. However, this situation does not seem to have distracted power semiconductor product designers, as there appeared to be more new products launched at PCIM 2016 than usual. New Si devices were on show for the first time, included the following:
- Both ON Semiconductor and its acquisition target Fairchild Semiconductor introduced new discrete insulated-gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs) for the automotive market. Incidentally, both companies expressed optimism about their forthcoming merger, due to their limited amount of product overlaps. For example, ON Semiconductor has a broader portfolio and strength in low-voltage products utilized in the computing, communications, and consumer end markets, whereas Fairchild is stronger in high-voltage products targeted in automotive and industrial applications.
- Littelfuse, Inc. unveiled its first discrete IGBT products.
- Infineon and Toshiba Electronics launched new SuperJunction MOSFETs in novel new packages.
The automotive sector is driving power semiconductor industry growth
Continuing a theme apparent from PCIM last year, the fastest-growing vertical market for power semiconductors is now the automotive sector. It is increasingly important due to the growing number of semiconductors used in new cars. According to IHS, the automotive sector overtook the computing as the third largest end markets in total revenue for power semiconductors in 2015.
The impending legislation to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from the European Union (EU) and elsewhere is pulling the market in the following two ways:
1. Overall engine efficiency needs to be improved. Electric motors and pumps are replacing hydraulics within power steering and other peripheral vehicle systems in conventional petrol- or diesel-engined vehicles. LEDs are replacing incandescent lamps, for both interior and exterior lighting (headlamps). All of these changes offer opportunities to increase efficiency with more sophisticated, intelligent semiconductor control.
2. Replacing conventional engines with electric motors is an obvious way for car manufacturers to reduce vehicle emissions. Many car makers are now offering hybrid and electric vehicles (HEVs), with semiconductor drivetrain motor control. On-board battery chargers for HEV are already using SiC diodes and SiC MOSFETs to reduce their weight and size, as well as to improve efficiency and power density.
Purveyors of GaN power semiconductors are anticipating a time in the future when Si semiconductors in hybrid and electric vehicle drivetrains will be replaced by GaN alternatives. They speculate that SiC devices might only be an interim step, because SiC transistors would work best for battery voltages around 800V-900V and above. Current HEV battery voltages are approximately 300V, which mean they would be better suited for GaN devices
Solar energy storage systems step out of the shadows
The solar market has been an important sector for power semiconductors for several years, but energy storage systems (ESSs) are a relatively new innovation. Off-grid ESSs use rechargeable batteries to store excess electricity generated from solar panels when the sun is shining, and then deliver useable power after sunset and on cloudy days.
ESSs are a growth area for power semiconductor suppliers and are gaining popularity in China and Southeast Asia, in particular. Villages in remote, off-grid locations can install solar panels with an ESS to provide a source of power continuously throughout the day. ESSs are approaching price competitiveness with diesel-fueled generators, but they are much cleaner, producing less air pollution and fewer emissions.
Final conclusions from PCIM
Overall power semiconductor market revenues declined by about 10 percent in 2015, compared to 2014. The long-term IHS market forecast for the next five years show an average of 5 percent growth per year.
IHS analyst discussions with companies at PCIM revealed a split in opinions about what the future might hold for the market. Most companies agreed with our projections, but some expressed concerns for the future. The key factors causing this reduced optimism were general global macroeconomic conditions, the weaker Chinese economy and the strengthening U.S. dollar exchange rate compared to other currencies, especially the Euro and the Yen.
PCIM is always a great way to learn about exciting, new technologies and the newest products. We look forward to traveling to Nuremberg in May 2017 for the next event.