Electronic metals in semiconductors
What is Industry 4.0?
Industry 4.0 is the shorthand for The Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is a broad term encompassing the current transition of our manufacturing technologies into smart factories, enabled by automation, interconnected and integrated systems, big data, cloud computing and the internet of things.
The first industrial revolution (late 1700s to early 1800s) describes the mechanisation of manufacturing through water and steam power.
The Second Industrial Revolution (late 1800s to early 1900s) refers to the transition into mass production assembly lines using electricity, and the development of railroad and telegraph networks which allowed for faster transfer of both people and ideas.
The third industrial revolution (late 20th century) saw advanced digital developments in computing, IT-systems, robotics and automated production.
What distinguishes Industry 4.0 from 3.0 is that the next generation of manufacturing comprises machines which are interconnected and can communicate with each other directly sharing real time data. This will mean that increasingly, machines will be able to make decisions without human involvement. This makes it possible to analyse huge amounts of data and identify patterns in real-time, allowing manufacturers to adapt quickly to problems as they arise and optimise their operations efficiently, thereby increasing productivity.
Not only in manufacturing, Industry 4.0 will ultimately optimise logistics and supply chains. For instance, in a connected supply chain, if there is a delay in a shipment, the system can proactively adjust and modify manufacturing priorities.
Historically, each stage of industrial revolution has reduced the reliance on human labour and has led to greater overall economic growth and increase in productivity. Conversely, entire industries and job sectors made redundant have been wiped out, with wealth becoming more concentrated in the hands of those who own the technologies driving the industrial revolutions.
We are in the nascent stages of Industry 4.0, although leading adopters mainly in the aerospace, automotive and electronics industries are already seeing returns on their investment in artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, quantum computing, cloud computing, smart power grids, logistics tracking, automation and virtual reality, to name just a few areas of development.
The successful proliferation of data-intensive Industry 4.0 technologies depends on the roll out of 5G networks, which can handle large volumes of data transfer, with low latency at giga-bit speeds. The data demands of Industry 4.0 technologies go beyond what the incumbent 4G networks can accommodate. The higher frequency 5G waves (3.5-50GHz) can transmit hugely denser data than 4G waves which operate at lower frequencies (<3.5GHz). Read more about 5G here.
The roll out of 5G is in turn increasing the demand for electronic minor metals (Gallium, Indium, Germanium) for semiconductor materials which can run at higher speeds, and increased efficiency over wider bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Semiconductors provide conductivity between an insulator and other materials and are required in electronic devices, as well as base stations.
The limits of innovation and performance have been reached with Silicon-based semiconductor chips. To put the brilliance of Silicon chip manufacturing into perspective, a silicon atom is about half a nanometre in diameter, and the most technologically advanced Silicon microchips are manufactured to be smaller than 7 nanometres. However, 5G places greater demands on semiconducting materials than the most advanced Silicon chips can provide, and so companies are battling to develop the next generation of semiconductor chips using compounds based on GaAs, CaN, SiGe, InP, which can operate at higher frequencies and at higher power rates, with greater efficiency than pure silicon semiconductors.
Higher frequency 5G signal waves have shorter ranges than the lower frequency 4G waves. This means that 5G will require a significantly higher number of base stations rather than a smaller number of large masts (as is the case with 4G). The higher number of small cell base stations will mean that a significantly larger volume of semiconductor materials will be required. This is expected to absorb the glut of electronic metals supply (Ga, Ge, In) which have been chronically oversupplied in recent years, keeping prices depressed. However, with producers’ metal output still at a fraction of their capacity, it seems unlikely that increased demand from Industry 4.0 and 5G will cause a shortage of these electronic metals any time soon.