Apple Dominates the Refurbished Phone Market: What’s Driving its Success?

According to TrendForce’s research, the global production volume of smartphones in 2022 is projected to reach 1.192 billion units, a YoY decrease of 10.6%, exceeding even the decline seen in the pandemic year.

However, the market for refurbished smartphones is a completely different story. Research institutions have pointed out that Apple’s sales of refurbished smartphones have grown by 16%, and the company now holds nearly half of the refurbished phone market.

The thriving market for refurbished and second-hand smartphones has ignited demand for touch and display integration IC (TDDI) from the repair market since 2H22, and this demand is expected to double to 200 million units in 2023.

But why is the demand for refurbished and second-hand smartphones increasing year after year? There are two possible reasons based on the current overall environment:

The price of refurbished and second-hand smartphones is lower than that of new smartphones.

Most refurbished and second-hand smartphones are refurbished before being sold back to the market. Their functionality and appearance are mostly normal, and unless the user mentions it, it is difficult to tell if it is a second-hand smartphone.

When purchasing refurbished smartphones, most people prioritize high-end models with high price points, regardless of the brand. However, the entry threshold for high-end new smartphones is often high, but this type of smartphone can be obtained at a cheap price in the second-hand market.

Why iPhone is the preferred choice?

  • Brand recognition: Consumers of all ages may immediately think of Apple/iPhone when they hear the words “smartphone brand,” and iPhone can become a faction in its own right compared to Android smartphones.
  • Operating system support: For smartphone users, the biggest fear when using the same smartphone for a long time is encountering the problem of the operating system no longer being supported. Although the smartphone can still be used when the operating system cannot be upgraded, security is no longer guaranteed.

However, the support and fluidity of the operating system are often advantages of Apple, and the iOS update support period is quite long, up to 6 years. Although 6 years may not sound long, statistics show that the average device usage cycle for an iPhone user is 3 years, and a support period of 6 years is actually a very long time. Even if you take over someone else’s second-hand smartphone, you don’t have to worry too much about the operating system not being supported.

While the growth of the refurbished smartphone market is good news for consumers, how much benefit does it bring to smartphone manufacturers?

For smartphone manufacturers, most of the profits come from the sale of new smartphones. When consumers purchase second-hand smartphones, the profit margins for manufacturers are reduced. However, manufacturers can still benefit from the demand for refurbished smartphones by participating in the refurbishment process or selling refurbished smartphones themselves.


Chiplet Design: A Real Game-Changer for Substrates

In the post-Moore’s Law era, chiplet design has been burgeoning as the mainstream architecture.

With the widespread adoption of EUV technology by foundries on process nodes of 5nm and below, the cost of semiconductor fabrication has skyrocketed. The cost of the 5nm process has grown by almost 1x compared to the 7nm process, and the 3nm process is expected to increase by almost 1x compared to the 5nm process.

To address this issue, IC design companies have started to split chip components or connect multiple chips and adopt advanced packaging such as 2.5D/3D IC to integrate multiple chips together.

Compared to traditional chip design methods, chiplet design has superior characteristics such as shorter upgrade cycles, lower costs, and higher yields, which is one of the reasons why chiplet technology is gaining popularity.

AMD’s chiplet design is a representative example. Through close collaboration with TSMC, AMD has fully transitioned its CPUs to chiplets since the 7nm process, with the Ryzen 7000 series CPU and Radeon RX 7000 series graphics cards released in 2022. The latter uses the RDNA 3 architecture and integrates the GCD and MCD produced by the 5nm and 6nm processes respectively, as a result improving overall performance, with a 54% increase in RDNA 3’s Performance per Watt.

Under the leadership of industry leaders such as AMD and Intel, chiplet design has had a significant impact on the entire semiconductor industry – substrates manufacturers in particular.

ABF Substrates Set to Soar

Aside from CPUs, developments in AMD and Intel’s server platforms indicate that the trend towards higher-layer-count and larger-area ABF substrates is expected to continue.

Given the server shipment volume is expected to remain stable and grow steadily in the mid to low single digits for the next 3-5 years, the growth momentum of ABF substrates mainly comes from the increase in layer count and area brought by 2.5D/3D packaging adoption in servers.

Starting in 2020, ABF substrates saw a surge in demand due to the pandemic. The supply-demand gap peaked in 2021, and in the first half of 2022, ABF substrate prices increased while volume increased and gross profit margins hit new highs.

Due to the impact of shortage in ABF substrates in 2020-2021, major substrate manufacturers have initiated large-scale expansion plans, with the expectation that demand for ABF substrates would continue to grow with the upcoming releases of new server platforms and the integration of 2.5D packaging for PC CPUs.

Growing demands with Some Hiccups

However, the moves have been put on hold for now. Since the second half of 2022, due to inventory correction in the overall semiconductor industry and the delayed production time of Intel’s new server platform, there’s been a supply glut in ABF substrates.

Therefore, Unimicron has taken the lead in adjusting its capital expenditure plans, reducing its planned capacity increase for 2023 from about 20% to only 3.5%. AT&S has also tentatively postponed the significant increase in capacity planned for the end of 2024. It is unclear when the expansion will resume or whether the expansion will be scaled back.

This indicates that current substrate manufacturers have not only lowered their demand projections for 2023, but also for 2025-2026. Further adjustments to the expansion plans of other manufacturers will also affect the future market supply-demands dynamics.

Back on Track for Major Growth in 2024

Looking into the future, things are looking up for the ABF substrate industry. In the second quarter of 2023, we can expect the release of new server platforms from AMD and Intel, as well as the completion of PC inventory adjustments.

With expansion plans in place, it’s predicted that global ABF substrate production capacity will only increase by 15-20% in the latter half of 2023, continuing to put pressure on substrate manufacturers, according to TrendForce.

Things are expected to pick up in 2024 with the release of AMD and Intel’s next-generation server platforms, Zen 5 and Birch Stream. Plus, the anticipated introduction of 2.5D packaging for PC CPUs will drive a new wave of demand for ABF substrates. All in all, we can expect a significant rebound for the ABF substrate industry in 2024.


Is Sodium-Ion the Future of EV Batteries?

Sodium-ion batteries are burgeoning as a popular alternative to lithium-ion batteries, thanks to the efforts of Chinese automakers who are pushing for its mainstream adoption.

Leading Chinese companies like CATL and BYD are ramping up the production of sodium-ion batteries. In mid-April, CATL and Chery unveiled their new battery brand, “ENER-Q”, which includes full product lines including sodium-ion, iron phosphate lithium, and ternary lithium batteries. Chery’s new energy vehicles will be the first to use CATL’s sodium-ion batteries.

Following CATL, BYD is rumored to start mass production of its sodium-ion batteries in the second half of this year, which will be used in its compact hatchback, the Seagull series. Both the moves have once again sparked discussions about battery technology in the market.

Geopolitical risks fuels Sodium-ion Batteries

Considering market supply and technical stability, lithium-ion batteries and iron phosphate lithium batteries are still the most popular types of batteries for electric vehicles. The former has a higher energy density but contains cobalt and nickel, which drives up costs. The latter has a lower cost but a lower energy density.

Sodium-ion batteries, on the other hand, have been overlooked due to their low energy density compared to traditional lithium-ion batteries.

So, why are companies like CATL and BYD turning to sodium-ion batteries?

Geopolitical risk is a major factor. Most lithium mines are located in countries like the US, Australia, and Canada. In today’s anti-China political climate, these materials could be used as bargaining chips to curb China’s electric vehicle industry. China won’t want to be at the mercy of other countries when it comes to the fate of its EV industry, so developing new technological routes is crucial.

From a mass production perspective, sodium is a more abundant element in the Earth’s crust than nickel, cobalt, or lithium carbonate, with a distribution that’s more evenly spread out. As such, sodium could be a better fit as a positive electrode material in batteries in the long run. Industry experts predict that sodium-ion batteries could even cost 20% less than iron phosphate lithium batteries once it reaches economies of scale.

The Supporting Actor in EV Batteries

However, a closer look into the pros and cons of both the materials may reveal that it’s not a zero-sum game. Instead, their characteristics can complement each other and help to accelerate battery technology development.

CATL’s new sodium-ion battery has an energy density of up to 160Wh/kg, which is comparable to the iron phosphate lithium battery in its Kirin battery system, but still lags behind the 255Wh/kg of ternary lithium batteries.

As a result, CATL is mixing sodium-ion and ternary lithium batteries in Chery’s new energy vehicles to balance cost and performance.

BYD is also expected to use a mix of sodium-ion and iron phosphate lithium batteries. Assuming this is true, it will echo the market’s assumption that sodium-ion batteries are not overturning the battery industry, but rather helping battery manufacturers maintain flexible product portfolios that cater to different market segmentations.

To give an example, CATL’s lithium iron phosphate batteries have been utilized in heavy-duty vehicles like 120-ton ore trucks and marine service vessels since 2022, where charging efficiency and cost take precedence over high energy density.

Therefore, sodium-ion batteries are likely to become a complimentary choice for lithium iron phosphate batteries, as they offer advantages such as high-rate charging, low cost, and high safety. This will definitely give car makers more flexibility in their future product strategies.


AI Sparks a Revolution Up In the Cloud

OpenAI’s ChapGPT, Microsoft’s Copilot, Google’s Bard, and latest Elon Musk’s TruthGPT – what will be the next buzzword for AI? In just under six months, the AI competition has heated up, stirring up ripples in the once-calm AI server market, as AI-generated content (AIGC) models take center stage.

The convenience unprecedentedly brought by AIGC has attracted a massive number of users, with OpenAI’s mainstream model, GPT-3, receiving up to 25 million daily visits, often resulting in server overload and disconnection issues.

Given the evolution of these models has led to an increase in training parameters and data volume, making computational power even more scarce, OpenAI has reluctantly adopted measures such as paid access and traffic restriction to stabilize the server load.

High-end Cloud Computing is gaining momentum

According to Trendforce, AI servers currently have a merely 1% penetration rate in global data centers, which is far from sufficient to cope with the surge in data demand from the usage side. Therefore, besides optimizing software to reduce computational load, increasing the number of high-end AI servers in hardware will be another crucial solution.

Take GPT-3 for instance. The model requires at least 4,750 AI servers with 8 GPUs for each, and every similarly large language model like ChatGPT will need 3,125 to 5,000 units. Considering ChapGPT and Microsoft’s other applications as a whole, the need for AI servers is estimated to reach some 25,000 units in order to meet the basic computing power.

As the emerging applications of AIGC and its vast commercial potential have both revealed the technical roadmap moving forward, it also shed light on the bottlenecks in the supply chain.

The down-to-earth problem: cost

Compared to general-purpose servers that use CPUs as their main computational power, AI servers heavily rely on GPUs, and DGX A100 and H100, with computational performance up to 5 PetaFLOPS, serve as primary AI server computing power. Given that GPU costs account for over 70% of server costs, the increase in the adoption of high-end GPUs has made the architecture more expansive.

Moreover, a significant amount of data transmission occurs during the operation, which drives up the demand for DDR5 and High Bandwidth Memory (HBM). The high power consumption generated during operation also promotes the upgrade of components such as PCBs and cooling systems, which further raises the overall cost.

Not to mention the technical hurdles posed by the complex design architecture – for example, a new approach for heterogeneous computing architecture is urgently required to enhance the overall computing efficiency.

The high cost and complexity of AI servers has inevitably limited their development to only large manufacturers. Two leading companies, HPE and Dell, have taken different strategies to enter the market:

  • HPE has continuously strengthened its cooperation with Google and plans to convert all products to service form by 2022. It also acquired startup Pachyderm in January 2023 to launch cloud-based supercomputing services, making it easier to train and develop large models.
  • In March 2023, Dell launched its latest PowerEdge series servers, which offers options equipped with NVIDIA H100 or A100 Tensor Core GPUs and NVIDIA AI Enterprise. They use the 4th generation Intel Xeon Scalable processor and introduce Dell software Smart Flow, catering to different demands such as data centers, large public clouds, AI, and edge computing.

With the booming market for AIGC applications, we seem to be one step closer to a future metaverse centered around fully virtualized content. However, it remains unclear whether the hardware infrastructure can keep up with the surge in demand. This persistent challenge will continue to test the capabilities of cloud server manufacturers to balance cost and performance.

(Photo credit: Google)


China’s Semiconductor Equipment booms: A New Gold Rush?

From the Entity List in 2020 to the Chips and Science Act of 2022, the US government has been tightening its grip on China’s semiconductor industry by blocking the export of advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The pressing question on everyone’s mind is: Will China’s semiconductor industry crumble under this pressure?

The answer, based on recent market reactions, is a resounding no.

Riding the Waves through Headwinds

Despite international semiconductor equipment manufacturers facing production cutbacks, China’s semiconductor equipment industry is thriving. In the first quarter, Naura, the leading semiconductor equipment manufacturer, reported a whopping 68.56%-87.29% increase in revenue, with a 171.24% to 200.3% increase in net profit. This has spurred growth across the entire Chinese A-share market for semiconductor equipment concept stocks such as Piotech, PNC process System, Advanced Micro, ACM Research and Hwatsing Technology.

This growth highlights a great leap forward in semiconductor process technology. Despite the adverse effects of the US’s broad-based restrictions, they have nonetheless created a favorable environment for testing and substitution opportunities. This, in turn, has enabled Chinese manufacturers of semiconductor equipment to increase their market share in the area of established semiconductor processes.

Full Speed Ahead: Aiming High for 5nm

In key semiconductor manufacturing processes such as thin film deposition, etching, ion implantation, CMP, and cleaning, Chinese manufacturers have already moved beyond traditional equipment development cycles and are progressing towards advanced process technology at full speed.

According to TrendForce, Chinese semiconductor equipment companies such as Naura and Advanced Micro(AMEC) are capable of supporting 28/14 nm in some process steps, and have even tentatively established their presence in 5 nm process technology.

Our summary identifies the main players to watch in thin film deposition, etching, and EUV:

  • Thin film deposition: Naura

Naura has achieved full coverage of PVD, CVD, and ALD product lines, with product lines matching international leaders such as Applied Materials, Lam, and Tokyo Electron. Naura has unique competitive advantages in the PVD field, with over 20% of its PVD equipment being supplied to Chinese 12-inch production lines such as YMTC(Yangtze Memory Technologies Co., Ltd), making it the second-largest PVD equipment supplier after Applied Materials.

Additionally, since 2012, Naura has sold over 200 PVD equipment, gradually achieving their goals for equipment substitution.

  • Etching: AMEC and Naura

As the leading CCP etching machine, AMEC has successfully penetrated TSMC’s 5nm production line, becoming the first domestic etching equipment to break through in the advanced process area. AMEC has also achieved large-scale adoption in 64-layer, 128-layer 3D NAND process, and 1x DRAM process. These main product portfolios contributed to the company’s 47.3% YoY revenue growth rate in the first half of 2022. In addition, AMEC’s etching equipment also enjoys a high gross profit margin of 46.02%.

On the other hand, Naura is at the forefront of ICP silicon etching equipment. Its first-generation 12-inch etching equipment underwent certification for 90-65nm at the SMIC’s fab in Beijing in 2008. In addition, with the support of national research projects, Naura’s ICP etching machine has also broken through 14nm barriers and been adopted by mainstream foundries.

  • Photolithography: Shanghai MicroElectronics Equipment(SMEE)

Photolithography is a critical process that China is strategically including in their semiconductor industry plans. They’re aiming to develop 28nm immersion exposure machines and core components through collaborative efforts: SMEE will lead the overall design and integration, with five or more companies providing key components.

Although SMEE has preliminary DUV exposure machine technology, it’s limited to more mature processes on 8-inch and 12-inch wafers at 90nm, 110nm, and 280nm, leaving a significant gap with international leaders.

From Toddler to Major Player

Although China’s equipment manufacturers are still at their toddler stage, the increasing momentum suggests that they will continue to make significant progress. Assuming that China’s policy support towards the development of 14nm and below semiconductor processes remains unchanged in the coming years, it is highly likely that the country’s market will fundamentally experience a transformation.

At this point, China’s semiconductor industry will enter a new era of high-speed growth, paving the way for the country to become a major player at global level. As China’s domestic market grasps the technology and commercial logic along the way, it will potentially have more influence over the global supply chain, as a result triggering a shift in the worldwide semiconductor industry in the long run.

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