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Daily Archives: August 7, 2022

Humour: News in Cartoons

The Lifecycle of a Semiconductor Chip

Gabrielle Athanasia and Gregory Arcuri wrote . . . . . . . . .

With the global economy reeling from a shortage in semiconductor chips, policy makers have turned their attention to strengthening the resilience of the supply chain, recognizing the centrality of this technology to economic growth and national security. This supply chain incorporates the extremely complex and costly processes of harvesting raw materials, designing, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping that are now carried out across the world to produce the variety of semiconductors that go on to live in our toasters, smartphones, computers, buildings, and cars.

To better understand the vulnerabilities in the semiconductor supply chain, we take a closer look at each step in a chip’s life cycle.

What Are Semiconductors and What Materials Are Required for Their Manufacture?

A semiconductor is a physical substance designed to manage and control the flow of current in electronic devices and equipment. The name “semiconductor” comes from the fact that a semiconductor chip is made from material that is neither entirely conductive of electricity nor fully insulating. They are typically created by adding impurities to, or “doping”, elements such as silicon, germanium, or other pure elements to alter their conductivity. A “wafer” of silicon or another semiconductor material is then edited to create complex circuits, which are capable of completing computing tasks. Examples of conventional devices and components built by using semiconductors include computer memory, integrated circuits, diodes, and transistors.

Semiconductors are typically made from one of two elements whose molecular structure when crystalized is secure enough to facilitate and regulate an electrical current: germanium and silicon. Germanium, the element on which the first transistor was developed, is a relatively rare and, therefore, expensive semiconductor. Currently, the U.S. maintains greater than 50% reliance on imported germanium from Belgium and China. U.S. germanium reserves are estimated to be near 2,500 tons, significantly behind China, which leads annual production at 85,000 tons. Silicon, however, is the second-most abundant element on Earth, accounting for roughly 28% of the Earth’s crust. While pure silicon, an ideal semiconductor, does not occur naturally on Earth, it can be synthesized by superheating silicon dioxide with carbon materials.

How are Semiconductors Designed?

While the science that undergirds the logic of a semiconductor’s basic functions is relatively simple, the mass-manufacturing of such small and delicate electrical components requires a complex design process. According to Synopsys, a chip design and verification firm, the process can be broken down into five steps.

The first of these is the architectural design of the chip, wherein the parameters of the chip are determined including its size, desired function, level of power consumption, and preferred cost.

Next is the logic and circuit design. After the parameters are outlined, engineers begin translating the required functions into circuit logic. Today, this process is done on automated logic simulators to verify that everything is in order before production.

Third is the physical design phase. Here, the circuit logic is mapped onto a silicon wafer. Essentially, this is a plan of where each transistor, diode, or other component will sit on the chip.

Finally, the verification and sign-off phases are used to verify whether the designed chip is manufacturable and whether it can withstand the physical stresses of its assigned function. Specifically, added resistance from wiring, signal crosstalk, and variability are all factors to be considered.

How are Semiconductors Manufactured, Packaged, and Shipped?

The process used to print circuits onto silicon-crystal wafers is called “photolithography.” The silicon wafer is coated with a layer of light-resistant material called the “photoresist.” Then, using photolithography, the photoresist is weakened or hardened in certain pre-determined regions by exposing it to UV radiation (light). During a step called “etching” the weakened sections of photoresist are removed. The exposed silicon crystal is then “doped” with impurities to alter its conductivity and create microelectronic components like transistors and diodes. Thousands of these circuits can be printed onto a single wafer side by side, and the wafer will go through a series of other complex steps before it is completed. Finally, each “die” of semiconductor is sliced from the wafer using precision sawing or laser technology.

Silicon chips are extremely fragile microelectronics that can be irrevocably damaged by excessive vibration, temperature fluctuations, or even static electricity. This has spurred the inception of an entire new industry adjacent to semiconductor manufacturing: chip packaging. Packages are meant to protect the semiconductor and facilitate its connection to a larger circuit or board. While packaging innovations and production used to be an entirely separate process, chip manufacturers themselves have begun developing expertise and integrating it into the manufacturing process. The fragility of the semiconductors also affects their shipping process, which must be done by specialized logistics firms.

An Interdependent and International Supply Chain

Because semiconductors are extremely complex products to design and manufacture, a highly specialized global supply chain has developed over the past few decades. The supply chain has four main components: sourcing of raw materials, design, manufacture, and packaging. Complicating matters, different countries specialize in each component.

In terms of raw materials, China is the world’s leading supplier of silicon, accounting for an estimated 64% of total silicon materials in 2019 according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

With regards to the design phase, the United States is still the world’s leader. Seven of the top ten integrated circuit design companies by annual revenue are headquartered in the United States. Often, these firms operate via a “fabless” business model, whereby they design the chips, then license the intellectual property (IP) to firms around the world to produce them. The name “Silicon Valley” is therefore a holdover from the days that the U.S. dominated this global industry.

Yet, for a few decades now, Taiwan has been the undisputed global leader in terms of market share for semiconductor manufacture. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) alone accounts for roughly 54% of all global foundry revenue. South Korea’s Samsung trails TSMC at 17%, while Global Foundries, the largest U.S.-based manufacturing firm, controls 7% of the market. Adjacent to manufacturing, the Dutch firm Advanced Semiconductor Materials Lithography (ASML) is currently the only company in the world that builds lithographic machines powerful enough for the most sophisticated chips. Each machine is comprised of over 100,000 individual parts and costs roughly $150 million. The firm ASML is expected to hit $28-$35 billion in annual revenue by 2025. This makes the Netherlands a key node in the global semiconductor supply chain.

According to the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, the semiconductor assembly and packaging market is extremely diverse, with firms from the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, and the Netherlands specializing in inspecting wafers, “dicing” them into individual chips, packaging them, and integrating them into larger electronic components.

These realities mean that each node on the semiconductor supply chain is interdependent on one another. States rely on international trade to move materials, equipment, and products around the world to facilitate the manufacture of this key ingredient in the global high-tech economy.

Full self-sufficiency, therefore, is a difficult and expensive goal to achieve. According to a study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, if regional supply chains (U.S., East Asia, China, Europe, and others) wanted to reach total self-sufficiency, it would require $1 trillion in incremental up-front investment to meet current levels of semiconductor consumption. It would also result in a 35% to 65% overall increase in semiconductor prices and higher costs of electronic devices for end users. The study also concluded that even to meet projected semiconductor demand in today’s globally connected market, the industry will need to invest at least $3 trillion over the next ten years in R&D and capital expenditure alone.

Recent Strains and Efforts to Alleviate Them

While disruptions in the semiconductor supply chain caused by COVID-19 brought awareness of the global chip shortage into the public domain, the issue predates the pandemic. Given their ubiquity in the devices that power the modern digital economy, demand for chips has been skyrocketing for decades, and will continue to increase along with demand for technologies like mobile phones and electric vehicles according to a recent report by Accenture. As the industry struggles to keep pace, ‘black swan’ events like earthquakes, floods, and fires (such as the blaze at the Renesas chip manufacturing plant in Japan) have had disastrous cascading effects. Pandemic-related lockdowns and border closures only exposed and aggravated the supply chain’s inherent fragility caused by its international nature and intensifying global demand.

In response to these developments, policy makers around the world have unveiled plans to bolster their domestic manufacture of semiconductors to mitigate the worst effects of supply chain breakdowns. In Europe, the European Commission has drafted legislation to mobilize over €43 billion in public and private funds to double its share of the global semiconductor manufacturing market by 2030. Meanwhile, in the United States, lawmakers continue to debate the CHIPS for America Act and the FABS Act, which provide lump-sum and tax-based incentives for chip manufacturers to “onshore” their operations. These efforts, while they have yet to take effect, will be the first steps in strengthening regional and national resiliency against future crises plaguing the supply chain of this critical technology.

Source : Center for Strategic and International Studies

The 20 Fastest Growing Jobs in the Next Decade

See large image . . . . . .

Source : Visual Capitalist

How Henan Bank Scammers Weaponized the Language of Inclusive Finance

Rao Yichen wrote . . . . . . . . .

On April 18, five village and township banks in the central provinces of Henan and Anhui did the unthinkable: Claiming “system maintenance,” they abruptly blocked depositors from transferring or withdrawing their money from their accounts.

Overnight, tens of billions of yuan were effectively frozen; some 400,000 account holders in provinces and cities across the country were affected. One entrepreneur lost as much as 40 million yuan. A single mother’s life savings disappeared. Medical bills became unpayable. Those who gathered in Henan to protest saw their local health codes mysteriously turn “red” — indicating a positive COVID-19 test or close contact with a COVID-19 patient — preventing them from traveling or entering the bank premises to withdraw their money in person.

The scandal soon took on national proportions, and not just because of the abuse of the health code system. This wasn’t a fly-by-night operation: The five banks were fully accredited and had marketed fixed deposit products to consumers all over the country via established and trusted fintech platforms like JD.com’s JD Digits and Baidu’s Du Xiaoman Financial.

The possibility that even accounts in the formal banking system might be scams has shaken public faith in the country’s banking system. A police investigation pointed the finger at the chairman of the banks’ corporate parent, the Henan New Fortune Group, but many depositors are still waiting to see what percentage — if any — of their money can be recovered.

At the policy level, the incident has cast a pall over a cornerstone of China’s “inclusive finance” campaign. Village and township banks first emerged as a distinct class of banking institution in China in 2006. At the time, the country’s large, brand-name banks were generally only willing to lend to state-owned enterprises, firms contracted to build government infrastructure, or companies that could show the kind of rapid growth needed to keep up with banks’ own high interest rates. One of my research participants told me that, as late as 2005, a private chemical plant he worked for with an annual income of 700 million yuan (then about $85 million) struggled to obtain bank loans at reasonable interest rates.

Village and township banks were meant to help address these gaps. Based in rural areas, they offered basic services to residents of China’s vast and largely unbanked countryside. After a short, three-year pilot period, the scheme was fast-tracked. Over 200 village and township banks were established in 2010 alone; by late 2021, there were 1,651 registered village and township banks nationwide, accounting for 36% of all Chinese banking institutions.

In economically developed coastal provinces like Zhejiang, village and township bank performances were relatively strong, but the majority of the banks, especially those in less-developed parts of central or western China, struggled. Residents of these regions have significantly lower incomes than on the coast and there are fewer rural enterprises with which to do business. Unable to compete with the brand recognition of more established commercial banks, village and township banks generally attracted clients rejected by other institutions.

In the face of these difficulties, much of the foreign and state-owned capital that had initially backed village and township banks faded away, leaving private capital dominant in an increasingly messy, competitive market.

Nevertheless, village and township banks were made a central part of a 2015 plan by the State Council — China’s cabinet — to promote inclusive finance. The goal was to reach people and businesses the traditional bank credit business was unwilling to cover, such as small- and micro-enterprises, farmers, low-income urban residents, and the poor and disabled, thereby boosting social equity.

The reality proved far more complex. Village and township banks have had a hard time competing with larger state-owned commercial banks. To poach depositors away from established competitors, they must offer higher interest rates, but the only way to cover these outlays is to charge higher interest on loans, which costs them their best potential customers.

Around this time, some village and township banks saw a possibility of survival in another key inclusive finance initiative: online banking and financial technology platforms. It was the peak of the peer-to-peer (P2P) lending craze and online platforms were marketing themselves as “financial innovations” for facilitating loans to small-, medium-, and micro-enterprises.

Many village and township banks, facing growing competition and under pressure to meet the needs of the inclusive finance campaign, sought to cash in on the fintech boom to fund their operations. They partnered with online financial platforms, allowing them to use their financial services licenses — and the air of legitimacy the licenses provide — in exchange for the ability to market “online deposit” products to the platforms’ national user base.

The scheme was relatively simple: depositors would sign up for a special deposit account with a bank through a third-party platform. Their savings would then be transferred from their primary account — typically at a larger commercial bank — to a new account at a smaller institution like a village and township bank.

For depositors, the benefits were obvious. The smaller banks, hungry for deposits, offered high interest rates — typically over 4%, compared to less than 3% at larger banks — to anyone willing to park their savings in an account. There was little reason to see the accounts as risky: Although interest rates were higher than average, they were still far below those promised by the now defunct P2P industry. And the institutions were all accredited banks included in the country’s deposit insurance scheme.

Strictly speaking, village and township banks are not supposed to take in deposits or hand out loans outside their base of operations. Because they are overseen locally, if they encounter problems outside their jurisdiction, it can have ripple effects elsewhere. But online fintech platforms let them quietly market their products to users across China.

The result was a shadow banking system in which small village and township banks, meant to serve local residents, were attracting funds from a wide range of users all over the country, causing regulatory problems and greatly increasing the risk of a cascading crisis.

Even before the Henan case, the government recognized the problem and moved to rein in online deposits. For example, in late 2020, 10 platforms, including Alipay and JD Finance, were ordered to delist all online deposit products.

That village and township banks had been involved in the industry and were exposed to the risks was not a secret. In early 2021, banks were banned from offering long-term fixed deposit products on third-party financial platforms under a new regulatory policy. But at least some institutions found ways to skirt the new rules. Several of the banks implicated in the recent scandal launched self-developed apps targeting online “savers.”

To reassure clients, many village and township banks used misleading language to imply their services were government-backed or approved. High-risk loans were reframed as “inclusive finance”; high-interest financial products were packaged as ordinary and safe “deposits” that were securely insured. This public-facing language, which promised legitimacy and credibility, covered for the banks’ “hidden script”: a reckless pursuit of risky profits. It also lowered people’s natural skepticism of tech-related scams. In the Henan case, in which app users’ money was supposedly saved through a bank app designed to look official, even bank employees failed to realize that the money was being redirected.

As recently as a few months ago, village and township banks were hailed as innovators in the field of inclusive finance. That praise has dried up during the Henan crisis, but the risks remain. This isn’t China’s first case of bank-related malfeasance. Now that the alarm has sounded, regulators must seriously examine and address the deep-seated problems plaguing the country’s financial institutions. Otherwise, depositors will keep falling for the same old tricks.

Source : Sixth Tone

Study: You Should Take Blood Pressure in Both Arms

Laura Williamson wrote . . . . . . . . .

Taking blood pressure readings from both arms and using the higher reading would more accurately capture who has high blood pressure – and is at increased risk for cardiovascular disease and death – than relying on readings from a single arm, new research suggests.

While current recommendations call for using the higher arm reading, there was previously no evidence in the scientific literature to support the practice, which isn’t routinely followed, according to the study. The findings appeared this week in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.

“If you are only doing one arm, you can’t know which is the higher-reading arm,” said lead study author Christopher Clark, a clinical senior lecturer in primary care at the University of Exeter Medical School in Devon, England. “And if you don’t catch high blood pressure, you can’t treat it. We can now support the adoption of using the higher reading from both arms.”

Nearly half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. Blood pressure is considered high if the systolic reading – the top number – is 130 mmHg or more, or the diastolic reading – the bottom number – is 80 mmHg or more. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.

In a 2019 scientific statement detailing proper blood pressure measurement, the AHA recommended taking readings from both arms during an initial patient visit and using the arm with the higher reading for measurements at subsequent visits. The statement also called for making sure to use the proper cuff size based on the patient’s arm circumference, among other guidance.

In the new study, researchers analyzed medical data for 53,172 adults from 23 studies in countries around the world. Participants were an average of 60 years old.

They found using the lower arm’s reading, compared with the reading from the higher arm, resulted in 12% of people who had hypertension falling below thresholds for diagnosis or treatment of the condition.

Because hypertension also is used to help calculate a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease, missing a diagnosis of high blood pressure can have serious consequences, the authors noted.

Using the higher arm reading, compared with the lower one, researchers reclassified 3.5% of participants – or 645 more people – as at-risk for cardiovascular disease using the risk score developed by the AHA and American College of Cardiology. The researchers reclassified 4.6% of participants – or more than 1,000 extra people – as at-risk for coronary heart disease based on another model, the Framingham risk score, which is used to predict the risk of developing heart disease in people with no symptoms.

For both risk scores, using the higher arm readings better predicted cardiovascular illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high blood pressure was the primary or contributing cause of more than 670,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2020.

High or poorly controlled blood pressure is a major cause of premature death and cardiovascular events globally, “so we’re dealing with something that’s really very common here,” Clark said.

For people whose blood pressure is being monitored at home with an ambulatory device, the monitor should be attached to the arm with the highest reading, he said. And those who self-monitor should check both arms to see which arm is consistently higher and use that arm for routine measurements.

Taking blood pressure in both arms will take health care professionals more time, but it should be done to provide more accurate readings, said Dr. Shawna Nesbitt, a professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

“And you should really measure more than once to get the most accurate reading,” said Nesbitt, who specializes in blood pressure disorders. Not doing so could mean measurements aren’t consistently accurate. “We may be allowing people to walk around with higher pressures than they should.”

The longer a person experiences uncontrolled high blood pressure, the higher their risk for heart attacks or strokes, Nesbitt said.

“This study is clinically relevant to what we do every single day,” she said. “Every hospital or clinic visit we have – even going to the dentist – somebody is measuring your blood pressure.”

Source: American Heart Association