Prospects for the Semiconductor Industry in the Post-COVID Era

Article By : Daniel Cooley

The impact COVID-19 had in 2020 will have lasting effects on the global economy and the technology that increasingly enables it. Daniel Cooley, CSO at Silicon Labs, shares three key areas that will drive the semiconductor industry in a post-COVID environment...

The impact COVID-19 had in 2020 will have lasting effects on the global economy and the technology that increasingly enables it. I will share three key areas that will drive the semiconductor industry in a post-COVID environment.

Healthcare Technology

First and foremost, healthcare technology will continue to take big steps forward beyond the current crisis. Two of the biggest trends that will continue into the future are increasing reliance on remote care for patients and healthcare professionals, and the impact of high-performance computing, coupled with artificial intelligence, on medical research.

Daniel Cooley, Chief Strategy Officer, Silicon Labs

With large swaths of the population forced or encouraged to stay home, the healthcare industry ramped efforts to shift medical care away from clinical settings and into the home. During this time, once rarely used remote treatments options like telemedicine have gone mainstream. Patients now routinely use video conferencing on smartphones and tablets to minimize in-person visits to doctors’ offices, clinics, or hospitals by interacting directly with healthcare workers through their connected screens. In addition, physicians are prescribing smart medical monitoring equipment to patients on a more frequent basis. The number of patients purchasing medical devices such as blood pressure monitors, blood glucose meters and insulin pumps, for home use is on the rise.

Through it all, medical device manufacturers are racing to add connectivity technology like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth into these devices to connect to them to the internet. Once connected, doctors are able to monitor patient data transmitted in real time from these smart medical devices more easily and frequently than in the past. Through these new connected smart medical devices, doctors can assess their patients’ status and render treatment remotely, helping to ensure valuable hospital beds remain available for those who truly need inpatient care.  This new data deluge from smart medical devices is also driving the need for robust security technology to protect the wireless transfer of sensitive personal information from hackers.

Medical teams will increasingly utilize cloud-based high-performance compute (HPC) infrastructure to develop new treatment programs and drugs regimens. The combination of HPC compute performance with new artificial intelligence capabilities is providing powerful new tools for researchers that is accelerating the discovery and development of new drugs to treat our toughest diseases. One recent example of this is Google DeepMind’s major advancement in the 50-year-old protein folding problem. By utilizing advanced artificial intelligence techniques, the DeepMind team was able to improve the protein folding accuracy by a factor of two compared to all prior versions:

(Source: DeepMind)

As we move into 2021 and beyond, researchers will leverage increasing amounts of specialized AI technology in the cloud, driving demand for high performance processor and memory chips.

Accelerating Automation and Digitization

The pandemic has also accelerated the need to digitize and automate as much of the economy as possible, and that trend will continue. While this trend has been underway for years, traditional brick-and-mortar industries such as retail, food, and entertainment will push their digitization efforts into overdrive for two key reasons:

  1. Workers and shoppers were unable to access to physical locations for unpredictable amounts of time.
  2. 100% digital retail platforms grew market share, taking revenue and profits away from less digitized retailers and creating the need for further improvements in efficiency.

These industries are adopting connected technologies that effectively enable mixed online/in-person experiences or circumvent in-person experiences altogether. Retailers and restaurants, for example, are shifting to a model best described as “Buy online, pickup in store” (BOPIS). Consumers are free to browse inventory or menus digitally before making their purchase. They then have the option to pick up their purchase at the store or have it delivered to their home. The logistics in maintaining accuracy in inventory through these channels is driving large technology adoption in inventory management and advanced pricing systems, most of which exists in the cloud.

Additionally, physical retail locations are quickly adopting new smart retail technologies like electronic shelf labels (ESLs) to lower operating costs, comply with local regulations on pricing accuracy, and increase the overall productivity of their workforce. For example, retailers can instantly update the prices of all the goods in the store with the push of a button instead of manually changing all of the labels – an effort that takes time, staff resources and introduces higher potential for human error. ESLs also open up new dynamic pricing models to drive additional revenue. ESLs are also are driving high demand of e-ink displays and wireless circuits to connect to inventory management systems located in the cloud. This is a market estimated to grow to from $625M in 2018 to $2.4B by 2027 [2].

The entertainment industry is actively testing new movie distribution models that do away with the physical experience altogether. With movie theaters shut because of the pandemic, movie studios released their latest films directly to streaming services like Netflix and iQiyi. As we emerge from the pandemic, you can expect to see movie studios continue experimentation with releasing films simultaneously in theaters and via in-home streaming services, or potentially bypassing movie theaters altogether. Movie studios are betting on the fact that most consumers have upgraded to 4K smart TVs and high-speed fast internet connections. The result is that the traditional entertainment distribution model is experiencing significant disruption. Major entertainment studios are welcoming this new way to establish closer relationships with end customers, while the theaters are working hard to maneuver an existential shift in consumer habits.

Working – and Playing — Remotely

One lasting impact of the pandemic is the corporate need to allow and enable employees to work from remotely. This trend started years ago, but the pandemic-induced shift to working from home accelerated the need overnight.

With little warning, employees suddenly working from home needed to buy large amounts of equipment like monitors and webcams, and quickly had to upgrade their home internet service plan and networking capabilities for faster speeds. Network operators forced to rapidly invest in internet infrastructure will continue to do so, and shift from mostly one-way data pipes (sending data into the home) to fully bidirectional pipes as remote workers continue to send larger and larger amounts of data up into the cloud from activities like file syncing and video conferencing.

Finally, companies will continue to develop new data distribution models enabling their employees to accomplish tasks at home while still complying with overall data governance rules and IT security protocols. The need to expand the corporate VPN to the home and, ultimately into the cloud, is underway and will be long-lasting.

Demand for wireless technologies that facilitate better, more intuitive work-from-home experiences that are as good as or better than the office experience will continue to grow.

The pandemic forced millions of people to spend almost all their time in their homes, millions took the opportunity to embrace IoT technologies in an effort to upgrade their smart home experiences to enhance their entertainment options, improve home security and add more conveniences. We can expect to see people continue to add new connected TVs and smart speakers for entertainment, wireless security systems, smart locks and doorbell cameras for home security, and devices like voice assistants and smart lighting to enable more conveniences in home life.

As we head into a new year with the promise of vaccines that are expected to finally bring COVID-19 to an end, clearly this unprecedented event in our lives underscores the indispensable role technology plays in daily life, and I am excited to see how connected devices will make life better in 2021 and beyond.

Daniel Cooley is Chief Strategy Officer at Silicon Labs

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