As semiconductor materials go, wide bandgap technologies are not only enabling new growth in application markets but pushing through the inertia of entrenched technologies. RF gallium nitride (GaN), particularly when implemented as GaN on Silicon Carbide (SiC) substrate, stands out as being the best suited for high-power applications (see Wolfspeed GaN: Rugged Enough for Tracking Space Junk, Rugged Enough for 5G). Market analysts are in agreement that two applications stand out as early adopters of GaN RF technology: defense and telecommunications infrastructure.
GaN demand from the military sector grew by 72 percent year-on-year in 2017, according to market researcher Strategy Analytics.1 They predict that growth to continue at a compound annual average growth rate (CAAGR) of 22 percent through 2022. The firm expects the military radar segment to remain the largest user of GaN devices for the defense sector with significant use in Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars for land-based and naval systems in particular. In the telecom market, Strategy Analytics sees base stations to be the single largest revenue segment for GaN RF with year-on-year growth of over 20 percent.
Another market analysis firm, Yole Développement, has published similarly robust numbers and estimated the overall GaN RF market to reach $2 billion by 2024 (figure 1).2 The firm sees GaN replacing GaAs in high-power, high-frequency satellite communications, while it offers added value over LDMOS or GaAs in cable television (CATV) and civil radar markets.
But perhaps the most attention grabbing is the use of GaN to enable the 5G telecom standard. GaN is expected to find its place in power amplifiers (PA) at sub-6 GHz in 5G remote radio heads (RRH) overcoming its closest rival LDMOS with superior thermal, size and weight characteristics (see GaN on SiC: the Substrate Challenge).
A need to focus on core competence
As an explosive demand beckons the industry, GaN device and systems companies are facing new challenges. A “gold rush” toward new opportunities will mean existing players look to introduce new products in a bid to capture a larger share of the market and new players try to break into an inviting product segment. Design engineers, in turn, will face increasing time-to-market pressures.
Competition drives successful companies to increase focus on core competence and find complementary partners like foundry service providers. Opportunity in the semiconductor device market and the capital-intensive nature of semiconductor manufacturing drove the establishment of the first foundry service — Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation Service (MOSIS) — in 1981 and then the first pure-play foundry (TSMC) in 1987. The foundry model continued to evolve with integrated device manufacturers (IDMs) offering their foundries to fabless companies and systems designers.
For GaN RF companies, GaN on SiC foundry services help them retain their focus on design and compete on product capabilities. For new entrants into the market, they help lower the market barrier considerably. Few foundries, however, offer such specialist services and represent in-depth know-how into the wide bandgap materials, SiC and GaN.
Wolfspeed is the main player in this area and ranks at the top in terms of knowledge as judged by the number of GaN RF related patents.3 It is also one of few GaN on SiC foundries that have responded quickly to the looming demand, announcing earlier this year a $1 billion investment plan into expanding its SiC fabrication and SiC materials production capacity by 30-fold.
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1. RF GaN Market Update: 2017 - 2022 (https://www.strategyanalytics.com/access-services/components/advanced-semiconductors/market-data/report-detail/rf-gan-market-update-2017---2022)
2. RF GaN Market: Applications, Players, Technology and Substrates 2019 (https://www.i-micronews.com/products/rf-gan-market-applications-players-technology-and-substrates-2019/)
3. Who is leading the RF GaN IP landscape? (https://www.knowmade.com/who-is-leading-the-rf-gan-ip-landscape/)