What Is TCAD and Why Is It Essential for the Semiconductor Industry?

Shela Aboud

Oct 16, 2023 / 4 min read

Modern technology computer-aided design (TCAD) technologies have been around now for years. Yet, many semiconductor engineers still run experiments directly on wafers to examine chip fabrication processes and device operation.

While it can be challenging to become proficient in TCAD, conducting experiments on wafers isn’t exactly easy, nor is it quick or cost-effective to do. As with so many other aspects of chip design and verification, doesn’t it make sense to automate the process for better productivity and results?

In this blog post, I’ll provide an overview of TCAD: its benefits, use cases, and why it has been critical in driving Moore’s law. Read on to learn why TCAD technologies should be an integral part of your electronic design automation (EDA) flow and get details on how industry/academia collaboration in this realm can support the workforce development that’s integral to moving the semiconductor industry forward. 

Technology computer-aided design (TCAD)

Exploring Process Technologies Via Computer Simulations

TCAD tools represent a branch of EDA and utilize computer simulations with physics-based models to develop and optimize semiconductor device technology. As chipmakers move to smaller geometries, certain design considerations and materials that worked well at older process nodes may no longer be effective at the more advanced nodes. TCAD tools offer a way to experiment and determine what works and what doesn’t work at different process nodes. The same explorations and optimizations can be done via experimentation with silicon wafers, but this is time-consuming, expensive, laborious and, often, less insightful. TCAD tools traditionally fall into two primary categories:

  • Process TCAD tools mimic the fabrication steps from the foundries that are used to build the transistor.
  • Device TCAD tools input the transistor architecture and simulate how electrical currents move through the device.

A third area has evolved for interconnect TCAD tools to simulate the non-active parts of the integrated circuit, particularly for the more advanced node where device performance can be heavily impacted by parasitic effects. Used most heavily at the R&D level and for pathfinding by foundries and chipmakers, TCAD tools have enabled Moore’s law for a long time. Early on, 2D device simulation tools were used for single transistor-level simulations of planar CMOS to, relatively quickly and easily, determine how to overcome scaling challenges. As transistor sizes continued to shrink, however, the physics for continued Moore’s law scaling grew more complicated, leading to new transistor architectures such as FinFETs and, eventually, interest in 3D stacking. TCAD tools are used to model these new designs and help determine how to optimize them for power, performance, and area (PPA), including in the face of process variability that can result in electrical noise. Its use also applies to  other areas, including power electronics, RF, and CMOS image sensors.

With the rise of compute-intensive applications such as AI, cloud computing, and highly automated vehicles, optimizing device performance to meet demand continues to be a challenge. While Moore’s law has long provided a pathway to design for optimal PPA, design technology co-optimization (DTCO) offers an avenue to assess PPA based on the chip’s process technology and design considerations. TCAD can enhance DTCO, a methodology that helps fabs reduce cost and time to market in advanced process development. During the pathfinding process, when engineers are evaluating architectures, materials, and different ways to integrate their devices, TCAD plays a role in the technology selection for DTCO. Traditionally, TCAD has examined individual transistors and circuit designs, employing SPICE models to analyze the behavior within circuits, while DTCO allows for evaluation of PPA at the standard-cell or even block level.

Many questions remain on how to integrate and further scale next-generation transistor architectures, which go down to angstrom-level feature sizes. Not only does this make TCAD a continually important methodology, it also requires a TCAD workforce with the expertise to use the technologies to optimize future device designs and processing flows. 

iit bombay tcad lab

Executives from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay) and Synopsys celebrate the inauguration of the Synopsys Semiconductor Lab for Virtual Fab Solutions at the IIT Bombay campus in Mumbai, India.

Supporting a New TCAD Lab at IIT Bombay

Despite the importance of TCAD, there remains a shortage of these skills in designing new process technologies. To  address this, the Synopsys Academic & Research Alliances (SARA) program has implemented a variety of programs in India, aimed at supporting young talent and enhancing their skills. These include the Indian Nanoelectronics Users’ Programme (INUP) workshop designed to provide attendees with training on TCAD. Additionally, SARA is sponsoring the Synopsys Semiconductor Lab for Virtual Fab Solutions, enabled with Synopsys TCAD solutions, at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay. The lab aims to provide students with hands-on training in process technologies, materials, and device architecture through software and course content, with training available for professors and scholarship opportunities for students. The lab, which will be available to students by the end of the year, will facilitate research on DTCO to evaluate next-generation materials, process technologies, and devices.

One of the key challenges and often a bottleneck to workforce development is acquiring manufacturing experience. However, TCAD creates an alternative approach where users and enthusiasts can gain meaningful insights into the manufacturing process by running simulations through a virtual fab. This is particularly appealing to institutions and startups that may have limited space and/or are tight on budget. Therefore, TCAD solutions can help reduce the need for students to access a semiconductor lab.

This collaboration exemplifies how industry/academia collaboration can help support workforce development to advance the semiconductor industry. As various regions of the world invest in semiconductor design and manufacturing, having a workforce that’s ready to step in and fill the roles is crucial toward getting new fabs online quickly.

The Future of TCAD

Looking ahead, we can expect TCAD to continue supporting DTCO as it evolves toward system technology co-optimization (STCO). Emerging from the shift toward multi-die systems, STCO co-optimizes the entire system, from technology to dies and package, with guidance from tightly integrated multi-objective analyses. With the increasing prevalence of 3D heterogeneous integration, TCAD becomes an important player in evaluating elements including new materials, thermal properties, and stress.

In summary, the smart technology modeling available through today’s TCAD tools can lead to cost and time savings in pathfinding, development, and production ramping of semiconductor technologies. From atoms to circuits, these solutions are an important enabler of continued semiconductor innovation. 

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