FormFactor announces breakthrough improvements in productivity for RF probe systems

FormFactor, Inc. (NASDAQ:FORM), a electrical test and measurement supplier to the semiconductor industry, has extended its Contact Intelligence technology. With Contact Intelligence, FormFactor’s advanced probe systems automatically and autonomously adapt in real time to changes in the testing environment, enabling customers to collect large amounts of RF data faster. As the race to bring 5G devices to market heats up, this addresses the need for higher productivity, to reduce time to market.

FormFactor’s Contact Intelligence technology combines smart hardware design and innovative software algorithms to provide accurate probe-to-pad alignment and electronic recalibrations in engineering labs and many production applications. With the introduction of its new RF solution, FormFactor now has specialized Contact Intelligence applications for RF, DC and Silicon Photonics (SiPh) testing.

FormFactor is best known for it’s probe card business, but with its acquisition of Cascade Microtech in 2016, it became more involved in the design and characterization side of chip-making, including RF and silicon photonic devices (probe cards are primarily used at the end of wafer manufacturing, testing the devices before they are packaged).

Mike Slessor, CEO of FormFactor, said with upcoming infrastructure changes — such as 5G, more mobile communications and IoT — RF is an important place to be. “The Cascade Microtech acquisition gave us an engineering systems business. These are pieces of customized capital equipment that help people very early on in their development and R&D — even early pathfinding — to figure out how their next device is going to perform, to characterize it and to improve its yield,” he said. That systems business grew saw a double digit growth rate last year.

Slessor said the new Contact Intelligence technology is designed to help customers in the systems business get a lot of data faster. He said the push to improve yield, along with new materials and new devices, is driving a tremendous amount of data collection. “What Contact Intelligence really is positioned to do is to help people easily and efficiently collect that data. You can think of it as bringing almost production automation to the engineering lab. We’re helping people do it autonomously over wide ranges of temperatures,” he said. He said it enables engineering tools to be upgraded. Customers can “set it up, push a button and walk away for 48 hours, 96 hours even more and come back and have a hundreds of thousands of individual characterization data points.”

New high frequency ICs, such as 5G (with multiple high frequency bands from sub-6 to more than 70 GHz) and automotive communication devices, need the highest quality process design kits (PDK’s) to ensure working devices at first iteration.

Traditional systems and methods require engineers to invest significant time for recalibration when the system invariably drifts, or to reposition probes with intentional changes in test temperatures. At higher frequencies, calibrations and measurements are more sensitive to probe placement errors and there is more calibration drift, so recalibration is required more often.Over time and temperature, Contact Intelligence automatically makes these adjustments with no operator intervention, resulting in more devices tested in less time, for more accurate PDK’s and faster time to market.

Slessor says the push to 5G brings many design and test challenges due to the significant increase in carrier frequencies – 10 times higher than 4G. “Although there are different bands and the carriers and the countries are still ironing out where they’re going to operate, there are bands as high as 72 gigahertz,” Slessor said. “Electrical signal propagation gets much, much more challenging as you go up in frequency. All kinds of new engineering and physics challenges emerge because you’ve got things that are radiating a good deal of power and there’s a whole bunch of cross talk on the chip. There are all kinds of interesting phenomena that appear that make the designers and the test engineer’s job much more difficult just because of these higher frequencies.”

In an RF front end, instead of modems or radios communicating, a wide variety of a BAW and SAW  filters are used to do the frequency band management and make sure that only the individual bands that are supposed to be used or being effectively used.

In addition to RF, Contact Intelligence is also designed for use in autonomous DC testing and for silicon phototonics.

In DC applications, Contact Intelligence automatically senses preset temperatures, and responds by waiting the correct amount of time until the system is stabilized. This allows lengthy test routines to be conducted over multiple temperatures without an operator present. Contact Intelligence also provides dynamic probe-to-pad alignment, even on pads as small as 25 µm, employing a combination of smart software, probe tip recognition algorithms and advanced programmable positioners.

FormFactor’s integrated SiPh solution allows sub-micron manipulation of optical fibers positioned above the wafer, automatically optimizing fiber coupling position.  Contact Intelligence uses machine vision technology to automate Theta X, Y and Z axis calibrations and alignments enabling measurements out of the box, reducing what used to take days or weeks to a matter of minutes.When combined with autonomous DC and RF, measurement options expand from Optical-Optical to include Photo-Diodes, Optical Modulators and more.

For more information, visit http://www.formfactor.com/contactintelligence.

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