Apple Corp. recent purchased an old 200mm-diameter silicon wafer fab in San Jose capable of creating as small as 90nm device features. Formerly owned and operated by Maxim, the US$18.2M purchase reportedly includes nearly 200 working fab tools. Some people outside the industry have speculated that Apple might use this fab to do R&D on the A10 or other advanced logic chips, but this old tool-set is completely incapable of working on <45nm device features so it’s useless for logic R&D.
As reported at EETimes, this old fab could be used for the R&D of “mixed-signal devices, MEMS and image sensors and for work on packaging.” Those who know do not speak, while those who speak do not know…I do not know so I’m free to join the public speculation. Mixed-signal and MEMS processing would require major re-tooling of the line, but this 15-20 year-old tool-set is nearly turn-key for wafer-level packaging (WLP). With minimal re-tooling, this line could produce through-silicon vias (TSV) or through-mold vias (TMV) as part of Fan-Out WLP (FO-WLP).
Our friends at ChipWorks have published a detailed tear-down analysis of the System-in-Package (SiP) used in the first generation Apple Watch; it contains 30 ICs and many discretes connected by a 4-layer printed circuit board (PCB). Significant power and performance improvements in mobile devices derive from stacking chips in such dense packages, and even greater improvements can found in replacing the PCB with a silicon interposer. With Apple pushing the limits on integrating new functionalities into all manner of mobile devices, it would be strategic to invest in WLP R&D in support of application-specific SiP design.
As reported by EETimes from the European MEMS Summit last month, French research institute CEA-Leti has manufactured accelerometer MEMS devices on 300mm-diameter wafers. This technology is currently being transferred to Tronics Microsystems SA (Grenoble, France), which currently only manufactures on 200mm wafers. Since CEA-Leti has long functioned as the R&D group for STMicroelectronics (ST), and previously led the way for ST to produce MEMS chips on 200mm-diameter wafers, we may expect that 300mm-wafer MEMS processing is now on ST’s internal roadmap.
Moving production to larger wafers makes sense when either the chip-size or the manufacturing volume increase in size. Much of the growth in demand for MEMS is for so-called “combo” sensors that combine multiple sensor technologies, such as CEA-Leti’s piezo-resistive silicon nanowire technology which allows the accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and pressure sensor capability to be integrated on the same chip.
The compatibility of Leti’s 200mm-developed technologies with 300mm wafer fabrication, “shows a significant opportunity to cut MEMS production costs,” said Leti CEO Marie Semeria in a press release. “This will be especially important with the worldwide expansion of the Internet of Things and continued growing demand for MEMS in mobile devices.” Sensors of all sorts will be needed for all of the different “Things” to be able to capture new useful information, so we may expect that demand for combo MEMS devices will continue to increase. —E.K.
A secretive investment holding company out of Hong Kong named GAE Ltd has acquired 98% of the shares in Silex Microsystems AB (Jarfalla, Sweden). The transaction took place on July 13th of this year when the former major shareholders agreed to sell all of their respective holdings, while Silex founder and CEO Edvard Kalvesten retains 2% of the shares in the company and continues his role as CEO and board member of Silex. No changes are made to the organizational structure or business operations of Silex, while the new owners plan to build a new high-volume manufacturing line near Beijing that clones the equipment and processes in Sweden with first wafers out by mid-2017 (as reported at EETimes).
Silex claims to be the “world’s number one Pure Play MEMS Foundry”, has worked with AMFitzgerald&Assoc. on RocketMEMS shuttle wafers to reduce MEMS development time by 6-12 months, and has developed multiple Through-Silicon Via (TSV) technologies to allow for efficient 3D integration of MEMS and CMOS.
Almost lost as a footnote in the news is that Silex holds IP on lead-zirconium-titanate (PZT) thin-film technology that allows for efficient piezo-electric energy-harvesting chips. MicroGen Systems is currently in the market with aluminum-nitride (AlN) piezo-cantilever micro-power generator system to power IoT nodes by scavenging either single-frequency or multi-frequency vibrations, working with X-Fab in Germany as foundry partner. If PZT-based piezo-cantilever energy harvesters can compete with AlN-based devices then the former could constitute much of the product volume in the new Silex Beijing fab. In 2014, Yole Developpement forecast “the integration of IoT-dedicated electronic components to result in a market volume of 2B units for these devices by 2021;” if 30% will use energy harvesting then this represents 600M units globally.