5G RF Front Ends are Pushing Innovations in Packaging Technology

5G has finally arrived! A number of key smartphone OEMs have already announced products that will support 5G cellular connectivity. It is clear for everyone that 5G will totally redefine how the RF front-end interacts with the network and the modem. However, the new RF bands (Sub-6 GHz and mm-wave) pose some major challenges for the industry, specially in terms of packaging.

Typical RF front-end components in smartphones include various switches, filters, amplifiers and the antennas themselves. SiP (System in Package) technology is being selected by the leading companies to answer to the market needs such as the implementation of an increasing number of bands and the development of circuitry in ever smaller surfaces. Therefore its added-value is its ability to gather many ICs, package assemblies and test technologies on the same surface. In the end, companies need to create highly integrated products with optimized cost, size, and performance.

The latest research report from Yole Développement (Yole) and System Plus Consulting highlights the advanced packaging requirements for 5G cellular RF applications. The “Advanced RF System-in-Package for Cellphones” is a comprehensive review of the SiP market for various RF front-end modules in the mobile business. Market figures, technology trends, competitive landscape and more are part of this analysis.

The megatrends are today directly impacting the semiconductor and the advanced packaging industries and 5G is of course part of them. 5G will bring more packaging business for OSATs (outsourced assembly and test), asserts Santosh Kumar, Principal Analyst and Director Packaging, Assembly & Substrates, Yole Korea. Under the dynamic context related to the 5G revolution, the leading advanced packaging companies are strongly investing to propose impressive technologies: From a technology viewpoint, base stations to smartphones, protocols to hardware, semiconductor devices and packaging, 5G requires disruptive innovations and not incremental ones as it was mostly the case in the past.

 

The RF SiP packaging market can be divided into two segments:

  • The 1st-level packaging of various RF components like filters, switches, and amplifiers at die/wafer level which includes RDL, TSV, and/or bumping steps
  • The 2nd-level SiP packaging, which is performed at the SMT level: under this segment, various components are assembled on the SiP substrate along with passives.

In 2018, the total RF front-end module SiP market (including 1st and 2nd levels) was US$3.3 billion. The market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.3%, reaching US $5.3 billion by 2023.

By 2023, the RF front-end SiP market for cellular and connectivity will constitute 82% and 18% of the total SiP market, respectively. By cellular air standards, front-end modules supporting 5G will account for 28% of the total RF SiP market in 2023. High-end smartphone contributes 43% RF front-end modules SiP assembly market, followed by low-end smartphone (35%) and luxury smartphone (13%).

The RF front-end SiP supply chain for 4G is led by a few IDMs like Qorvo, Broadcom (Avago), Skyworks Solutions, and Murata, which outsource part of SiP assembly.

Qualcomm has emerged as a serious RF front-end player for 5G solutions, especially for 5G mmWave, with multiple wins with various mobile OEMs. They are expected to maintain their dominance in the future. In fact, Qualcomm along with Samsung are the only players that provide complete solutions for 5G, including the modem, antenna module, and application processors. Qualcomm, being fabless, outsources all of its SiP assemblies, which results in more business opportunities for OSATs. Also, IDMs are focusing more on RF front-end solutions for 5G sub-6 GHz, which also require packaging innovations like closer placement of components, double-sided mounting, conformal/compartmental shielding, high accuracy, and high-speed SMT, etc. This requires investment in new tools & processes.

Yole and System Plus Consulting analysts believe the burden of high investment in assembly technology will motivate firms to outsource more to OSATs.

The leading smartphones manufacturer Apple, is also part of the SiP playground. For the second year, within its new versions of the iPhone, the Xs, Xs max and Xr models, Apple has decided to adopt innovative RF technologies, with the latest and most advanced filter and packaging technology proposed by Broadcom. Apple’s front-end module is the first to include a flip-chip GaAs-based power amplifier and advanced EMI shielding, allowing frequency band sharing in the same SiP platform.

Next month, the Yole Group of Companies and its partner NCAP China are holding a 2 day event in Shanghai, China called Advanced Packaging & System Integration Technology Symposium. The event will take place on April 22 & 23, prior to NEPCON China. With a strong focus on the applications side, including the 5G revolution, Yole, System Plus Consulting, NCAP China and invited speakers including Besi, Kulicke & Soffa, Unisoc and more will share their vision of the industry evolution and analyze the technical challenges. To read the full agenda and register for the event, click here.