Prof. Jong-Ho Lee S, “Semiconductor standing at its peak, but the warning light is turned on.” (NewSys, 20180709)

2018-07-13l Hit 99

-Semiconductor leading exports and economy but China is posing a severe threat
-Able to maintain through leading the derivation of new technology without stopping
-The government, companies, and universities have to closely cooperate to foster talents that can perform as much as 100 other people

Jong-Ho Lee, Director of SNU Inter-University Semiconductor Research Center (ISRC), is doing an interview with Hyun-Ho Kim, executive adviser of NewSys, about Korea’s semiconductor industry at the ISRC director’s office, Gwanak-gu, Seoul, in the afternoon of the 5th

SNU professor Jongh-Ho Lee, a world renowned authority on semiconductor research

SNU ISRC director professor Jongho Lee (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering) spent his childhood in a mountain village located about 30 ris (one ri is approximately 393 meters) away from Habcheon-eub, Gyeongnam. Coming from the countryside surrounded by mountains, he graduated Kyungpook National University and obtained his master’s and doctor’s degree in Seoul National University. After working in Wonkwang University and Kyungpook University, he is currently serving Seoul National University. He gained a reputation in the semiconductor research area after he developed the ‘bulk FinFET’ technology, which is a 3 dimensional semiconductor device, in 2001 for the first time in the world. This technology transforms a two-dimensional semiconductor device into a three-dimensional structure to dramatically reduce the size of the transistors and the energy consumption, making it the core standard technology of major semiconductor companies worldwide. He is an IEEE fellow, which is granted only to under 0.1% of IEEE members.

The life story of this world top class scholar, who came from a remote mountain village and started studying semiconductors when the semiconductor industry of Korea just initiated, shows the history of Korea’s semiconductor industry as it is. The circumstances of the Korean semiconductor industry when it tried to step out to the world could not have been different from the situation the young boy was in when it first headed out to a big city from the mountainous countryside. Having neither resources nor technology, but having the sole determination that “If we fail, we die”, Korea started to catch up with the semiconductor technology of the United States and Japan, and now it surged past them to stand at the forefront.

Our semiconductor industry is enjoying an unprecedented golden time. It is holding over 70% global market share in the DRAM memory market. Samsung Electronics is the first, SK Hynix is the runner-up and Micron Technology of the United States is in 3rd place of the market share.

The current economy of Korea is highly dependent on exports, and the semiconductor industry is the top-ranked export product. Last year, the semiconductor industry accounted for 17% of the total exports, and this year it is expected to achieve over 100 billion export revenue as a single product, taking up over 20%. However, there are some warning voices pointing out the crisis of this industry.  Above all else, China is rapidly catching up with us after announcing the "rise of semiconductors." What if even the semiconductor industry collapses? There will hence be an economic catastrophe in Korea. This is why we should listen to the diagnosis of Professor Lee on the current status and future of Korea’s semiconductor industry and China’s threat.

-How competent are our semiconductors?

“I realize Korea’s status when I go to international semiconductor conferences. The perspective of the United States and Japan towards us is completely different from the past. In the earlier days, when we first jumped into the semiconductor industry, no one predicted that we could be as successful as we are now. What we achieved is truly amazing. We have about 70% market share in the DRAM market, and about 50% in the NAND flash memory market. Recently, the development in technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicle, and IoT, brought advancement in the memory market. However, we should not be relieved since the market condition can always fluctuate with oversupply, competition, and changes in the industry structure. The non-memory industry is still showing poor performance. The non-memory industry has numerous applications, which makes it hard to perform well in each one. Selective concentration is needed. Recent artificial intelligence semiconductors heavily rely on memory technology. However, their application is rather in the processor, which is a non-memory chip. Artificial intelligence will further develop into neuromorphic computing, which is based on the so-called neuroimaging technology, embedded in a non-memory chip structure. If we advance in such new areas, we will be able to increase our market share also in the non-memory market. Whether it is memory or non-memory, I believe that we should lead the market with the world’s best technology.

One thing to note is that our research level is not superior to that of the surrounding great powers. However, it is possible to have a misconception that our research level is better since we have better memory mass production technology. In other words, our future is not bright if we do not strategically tackle our future technologies. Now, large corporations, small, medium-sized and venture companies, universities and research centers have to think out of the box and actually cooperate for efficiency. We have fewer choices than before. Currently, Korea’s semiconductor technology relies mainly on the mass production technology. We do not know how long this will last. Considering this fact seriously and cooperating to produce a synergy effect can only be our actual competence in semiconductors.”

Jong-Ho Lee, Director of SNU Inter-University Semiconductor Research Center (ISRC), is doing an interview with Hyun-Ho Kim, executive adviser of NewSys, about Korea’s semiconductor industry at the ISRC director’s office, Gwanak-gu, Seoul, in the afternoon of the 5th

-What is the driving force behind Korea’s semiconductor industry?

“Fundamentally, I say our people’s characteristics and cultural background seems to fit well with the semiconductor industry. Who else can there be that can set a goal and move fast with perfect coordination better than our citizens? Koreans’ excellent hand crafting skills also go along well with semiconductors.

Based on these qualities of our people, I believe that Korea’s current semiconductor industry was built on an entire combination of the efforts of pioneering entrepreneurs that saw the future of semiconductor industry and fought through all the difficulties and adventures, the government that supported them with adequate policies, and researchers and industrial workers that strived night and day to develop new technologies. This will be the same for not only the semiconductor industry but for any other fields, and these efforts should be continued to make a field prosper.”

-Some are pointing out that Korea’s semiconductor industry is facing a crisis. Do you agree?

It is true that there are some critical issues. Complacency with the status quo will quickly bring us a crisis. We no longer have anyone to follow. We have to develop new technologies ourselves and expand research areas. It is just like riding a two-wheel bicycle. As soon as we stop, we fall down. Most of all, China’s advancement is really threatening.”

-Do you realize the threat of China?

“There are far more international conference activities related to semiconductors in China compared to Korea. They invite internationally renowned researchers to hear various stories. I am also not able to handle all the invitations from China at the moment. We have nothing to say when they ask us why Korea does not have a lot of international conference activities related to semiconductor technologies. In the early 2000s, there were zero or maybe one paper from China that was accepted to the best international conferences when we had around ten. Now China has twice the amount that we do. China’s speed of development is like the quantum jump (explosive great leap forward). 

Around 2005 when I was a professor at Kyungpook University, I had a chance to visit Beijing University in China for inter-university exchange. I remember that they had concrete flooring in the clean room for semiconductor experiments and did not have enough disposable gloves or masks. What they had could hardly be called as semiconductor-related facilities. After I came back, I once supplied disposable masks and gloves made in Korea through a Chinese professor who came to visit Kyungpook University. The professor was very thankful. Now, when more than ten years have passed, they have better facilities than ours. They also possess all the equipment necessary for research.

More importantly, that research center was filled with excellent students who were the 1st or 2nd in each province of China. The campus road of China’s Tsinghua University is very wide. When the large road is full of students after class, it is quite intimidating. Each and every student on that road is a top student from different parts of China. For Korea to compete with them, we need students that can match the performance of ten or a hundred other students.”

-China announced the rise in semiconductor. Will Korea have a direct impact?

“I see that Korea is maintaining a considerable technology gap between China in the mass production technology. Korea is doing a good job in DRAM and NAND. DRAM is technically very complicated. Personally, I want to call DRAM as art. I have been researching this for many decades, but the more I look into it, the more amazing it is. In terms of its value, it may not be too much to pay 10 million won or 100 million won for each DRAM. Actually, DRAMs are necessary to purchase even with these prices if there is a scarcity phenomenon for it. However, the current market price is not over 3~4 dollars and it even dropped to a dollar at one point. What I mean by this is that DRAM technology is not something that can be accumulated in a short period. It takes time. For China to catch up with our level, it might take quite a long time. Nevertheless, it is true that we are in the maturity phase of the technology growth curve, whereas China is rapidly catching up. While our development follows a straight line, China is accumulating its ability in a parallel and three-dimensional manner even with trial and error. Because of this, it may be meaningless to consider how much time difference exists between China and Korea.

Soon enough China will probably be dominating the middle to low cost-memory semiconductor market. For instance, mobile phones with fairly elementary performance do not need the cutting-edge semiconductors. Such types of products sold in China will use the Chinese semiconductors. The absolute strength of China is that they have their own market. If China succeeds in having a two-digit number market share, it will become self-sustainable and Korea’s stance may be threatened.

China has announced that it will invest 1 trillion yuan (176 trillion won) until 2025 to increase its self-sufficiency rate of semiconductors from the current 10% to 70%. 40% of Korea’s total amount of semiconductor export last year was from the China market. Although there may be some gap between the level of technology, the market status can be quite urgent.”

-Against the treat of China, in what direction should Korea’s semiconductor industry proceed?

“Now we don’t have anyone in front of us to follow as a role model. We have to discover our own path. We should pioneer new fields in the semiconductor industry and create a new paradigm. Endless technologies can be derived from semiconductors. I am personally focusing on the AI semiconductor research. The two biggest powers in the deep learning field, a software technology for AI, are the United States and China, which leaves no space for Korea. However, the hardware for AI is a new field for semiconductors which is doable for us. New applications of semiconductors will continuously be discovered. Here, we should continuously go ahead. As soon as we drop back, our position in this industry will completely vanish.”

-What should we do to keep the lead?

“We need to foster creative talents. They need to have strong theoretical backgrounds, enough experience in real manufacturing processes, and creative mindsets. These talents do not come from nothing. Especially, they have to repeat countlessly the process of experimenting and manufacturing. It is hard to develop a new technology or paradigm based only on the theory without actual trials. Also, an interdisciplinary approach is possible only with direct experience in different fields such as transistors and circuits. If people who excel in one area are taught to directly experience a new but related field, an amazing synergy effect can be expected even after a short time.

However, these days some companies complain that hardly any of the new recruits have semiconductor manufacturing experience during university. The company has to teach them again which costs a lot of money to implement and run a new line for education. Universities do have fabs(laboratories) for education, including manufacturing process education, but the facilities and devices are worn out. Even in this situation, they are trying to focus on fostering students and researching with a minimum budget. However, they are facing more and more difficulties as time passes.

In our research center, we created a two-week course program during last winter vacation for undergraduate students, graduate students and company employees related to semiconductors. We had space for 145 people but 950 people tried to sign up online at once so the system collapsed. Also for this summer education program, we are worried since 800 people applied when we only have space for 120 people. We need a sufficient environment for people who dream to develop the next technology, who are searching for jobs, and for workers in the industry to experiment and learn whenever they want to. Among these people, there are talents like Steve Jobs who will discover new fields and lead Korea’s semiconductor industry. However, not everyone can and should not be Steve Jobs.”

-What is the government’s role and how is its support?

“Since our semiconductor industry is doing well and especially because there is a strong perception that it is centered around major companies, the government’s support is stingy. It is understandable but decisions should be made based on our country’s industrial structure. We cannot stand still and just watch the reality of China investing astronomical amount of resources. The government and companies, universities and research centers should overcome the conflicts in interests and strive to keep the lead by fostering talents that can lead Korea’s semiconductor industry and develop paradigm-shifting technologies based on preceding works.

Anyhow, universities are the ones that can effectively prepare students for future technologies. Therefore, universities that already have fab facilities should be supported. They need infrastructure support to educate students that can change the paradigm and for re-education. Future technologies come from talented students so this is what should be considered the most important. Also, for the technologies developed in universities and research centers to reach the industry, quality jobs should be created by effectively planning how to grow venture companies. Making a program that allows graduate students to start a venture company with accumulated technology from their university laboratory and doing assignments to support start-ups can be some examples.

Major companies, middle, small-sized, and venture companies, universities and research centers should quickly consider how to create a synergy effect in future technology to go ahead of other countries, make a plan for development and support resources. Major companies have competence in hardware manufacturing related to semiconductors and middle, small sized companies, start-ups, universities, and research centers have numerous novel ideas and technologies. The government should cooperate with them for a synergy effect, and also, make policies that give advantages for each institute and maintain the balance.

  • The government should implement policies and manage conflicts of interest to create new diverse markets based on our globally competitive semiconductor industry. We do not have much time on our hands. If we miss this opportunity, retired people might not be able to receive their pension as planned. We need to foster excellent talents and relying on them, we have to make a model suitable to the current situation that can continuously derive new cutting-edge technology. We have enough ability to do this. However, if we are not vigilant and stay content with the current state, we may fall off the edge. We have to be strongly determined and be conscious of the crisis. Under this awareness, the government should play an active role in planning national policy strategies and creating the atmosphere.”
  • Source:
    Translated by Kyungjin Lee, English Editor of Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering,