Semiconductor Engineering – May 9, 2017
by Jeff Dorsch
Thin Film Electronics is opening a chip fabrication facility in San Jose, Calif., that will produce devices on rolls of flexible materials, using technology similar to inkjet printing, rather than the standard semiconductor production equipment geared toward silicon wafers.
At the same time, Samsung Electronics and GlobalFoundries are expanding their wafer fabrication plants in Austin, Texas, and Malta, N.Y., respectively.
Samsung has committed more than $1 billion during the first six months of this year to increasing production at Samsung Austin Semiconductor in the capital of Texas. The commitment was announced shortly before the presidential election in November. The Samsung unit makes LSI components and memory chips.
GlobalFoundries similarly trumpeted the news last year that it was making a multibillion-dollar investment in upgrading its Fab 8 facility, with the goal of making chips that have 7nm features. The government of Abu Dhabi, which owns GlobalFoundries through its Mubadala Development investment fund, already has spent $12 billion on constructing and equipping Fab 8.
Meanwhile, Tesla’s SolarCity subsidiary plans to start up its solar panel factory in South Buffalo, N.Y., this summer, to go with Tesla’s Gigafactory battery plant near Sparks, Nev.
The new Thinfilm plant will make electronic article surveillance tags, theft-prevention devices often used in retail, and near-field communication chips, which go into product labels and can detect if a bottle or box is opened prior to purchase. The chips can fit into Internet of Things applications, such as detecting if a bottle of wine has been opened since leaving the winery and transmitting the information to the cloud, similar to radio-frequency identification chip tags with antennas.
Thinflim’s Silicon Valley operations began with the 2014 acquisition of intellectual property, production equipment, and technology belonging to Kovio, a printed electronics startup originally known as Nanotectonica. It was founded by affiliates of the MIT Media Lab and funded with more than $100 million by blue-chip investors, such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Michael Vyvoda, Thinfilm’s vice president of manufacturing, said his company took over Kovio’s facility on Zanker Road in central San Jose, where sheet-based production of the EAS and NFC chips took place. Thinfilm has recently relocated to the new fab on Junction Avenue, transferring the sheet-based equipment there and presently bringing up those systems.
Thinfilm has placed orders for roll-to-roll equipment with “a number of vendors,” Vyvoda said in an interview, without naming specific companies. “The equipment size is quite compact, so we feel it is a lot easier to scale this, anticipating demand.”
Applied Materials, headquartered in nearby Santa Clara, is a supplier of roll-to-roll coating systems.
After a grand opening ceremony planned for next month, Thinfilm expects to begin taking deliveries of roll-to-roll manufacturing equipment during the fourth quarter of this year. Production of NFC tags is scheduled for 2018, Vyvoda said.
Thinfilm has about 110 employees in San Jose, most of its global workforce, with its headquarters in Norway and a research and development center in Sweden.
Talking about Kovio, Vyvoda said, “The company was really founded to commercialize printed electronics – producing logic-grade transistors, TFTs, using printing techniques, not on silicon, thus being able to ramp that in a way that is really very scalable compared to typical semiconductors. Now, you’re not talking about building multibillion-dollar fabs, you’re talking about tens of millions to build roll-to-roll production lines.”
He added, “That’s really the vision – it’s chips that have just enough information, just enough smarts, for example, NFC, that you can put on everything: every package. That’s basically the idea. To really proliferate this by putting NFC technology on lots of different packages, you can have brand marketing information, some amount of sensing technology, that kind of thing, and many billions per year in unit volumes.”
The average selling prices of these printed chips are a few cents, keeping the technology cheap enough for volume adoption.