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Taiwan’s Chip Maker Speeds Up Production of Key Components to Meet Urgent Orders for Medical Devices Used in the Fight Against COVID-19, Reports TrendForce

10 April 2020 Semiconductors TrendForce

  • UMC shortens lead time for certain semiconductor components in order to boost the production of medical ventilators that are now in high demand worldwide.

Market intelligence firm TrendForce reports that the ongoing campaigns to suppress the spread of COVID-19 in many countries have rapidly exhausted the global supply of critical medical equipment and materials. Currently, the shortages of protective gears including face masks, face shields, and protective suits are starting to ease a bit as production of these items goes into high gear due to manufacturers’ efforts and cross-industry collaboration. However, there is still a sizable supply gap for electronic devices deployed in the monitoring and caring of coronavirus patients. Since these devices contain a multitude of semiconductor components that are made using high-precision manufacturing processes, medical device suppliers are depending on chip makers to ramp up production. Going forward, shortening the lead time for the key components will be a significant factor in overcoming the supply bottleneck for the essential medical equipment.

TrendForce points out that Taiwan’s semiconductor foundry UMC is doing its part in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic by adopting super hot run (SHR) in fulfilling urgent orders from IC design house Phison for components used in medical ventilators. This move will help cut the lead time from the usual two months to just slightly over a month.

The various semiconductor components inside a medical ventilator work together to continuously and accurately adjust the air flow that supports a patient’s breathing. In the management of the electronics supply chain, semiconductor chips have a longer lead time (calculated in months) compared with most other types of components. Also, the chip demand from medical devices has been relatively small compared with the chip demand from other mainstream applications. IC design houses that offer solutions for medical devices have kept a limited quantity of these products on stock and rarely make significant changes to the inventory level. In short, the supply side was not prepared for the arrival of the urgent orders for ventilators. UMC in giving precedence to the fight against COVID-19 has thus taken the necessary step to meet Phison’s orders through SHR.

To maximize the efficiency of wafer processing lines, foundries have to adjust the sequence of dispatching wafer lots to different tools based on the cycle time of each processing stage. The three levels of priority for sequencing the wafer dispatch are super hot run (SHR), hot run (HR), and normal run (NR). SHR is the highest priority with the shortest cycle time and rules out any possibility of production delays with the exception of specific events. HR ranks second in priority with a longer cycle time compared with SHR. NR is the standard mode for processing wafers and is applied to most orders. SHR is used in certain scenarios, such as clients wanting to quickly validate the results of their important samples or requests concerning the development of a new process node. The frequency of its adoption in mass production is relatively low.

By pulling up the priority of Phison’s orders, UMC shows itself as being very proactive in addressing the immediate needs of its clients. UMC’s action also highlights the vital role that foundries have in the production of semiconductor components used in medical devices. Their efforts can influence the supply situation for ventilators and other kinds of electronic medical equipment. It is also worth mentioning that chips based on 8-inch wafers are included in the urgent orders received by UMC. The foundry therefore will be under more strain in managing the progress of production given the tightness of its processing capacity for 8-inch wafers. Nevertheless, the adoption of SHR for Phison’s orders can be viewed as a considerable contribution to the global fight against COVID-19. Hopefully, the foundry industry as a whole will take similar approach to accelerate the production of chips used in medical devices so as to bridge the supply gap.

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