As we began our interview Tom Sonderman revealed that he is the President and most senior executive of a company that doesn’t use the CEO nomenclature.

Tom Sonderman,
President of SkyWater Technology Foundry Inc.

SkyWater came into being March 1, 2017 to take over a chip manufacturing site that was previously owned by Cypress Semiconductor Corp. and originally established by Control Data Corp. “It was bought by Cypress in the 1990s and in 25-plus years they have taken the technology down to 65nm CMOS. We are running 130nm and 90nm but the fab is 65nm capable,” said Sonderman. “The fab has focused on manufacturing a high mix of low volume products such as specialty SRAMs and mixed-signal circuits for IoT. Cypress already had a prototyping and process R&D business that they had moved to Minnesota. That is the essence of what SkyWater was at launch March 1, 2017”

The factory has a manufacturing capacity of about 12,000 wafer starts per month assuming 200mm-diameter wafers with 30 mask layers, Sonderman said. This is somewhat less than was quoted when the facility was put up for sale by Cypress, but such capacity calculations depend on the complexity of the circuits being processed and the product mix, Sonderman said.


The formation of SkyWater was enabled by Oxbow Industries LLC, a Minnesota-based private equity company that specializes in buying and building business in partnership with management. Where necessary, Oxbow also injects management into its companies and recruited Sonderman from semiconductor equipment company Rudoph Industries, knowing of his previous long experience with Globalfoundries Inc.

Sonderman said he has spent the first 15 months of his tenure at SkyWater recruiting management and building up the capabilities of a “technology foundry” that can resonate in the industry and help SkyWater gain traction.

Sonderman argued that after decades when manufacturing processes were stable and the main effort was on scaling, there is now a renewed emphasis on process innovation to prepare for a post-smartphone era driven by 5G communications and artificial intelligence.

On March 1, 2017 SkyWater’s revenue balance was 97 percent with Cypress and 3 percent with a company called Parade Technologies Ltd. which acquired the TrueTouch capacitive touch sensing business from Cypress in 2015. Sonderman said that SkyWater exited 2018 with an approximately 60/40 revenue split – 60 percent being with Cypress and the other being technology foundry business. These ratios encompass both wafer production and engineering revenue streams, he added.

Trusted Fab Status

One of the reasons Oxbow Industries got involved with the buy-out was that it could see that a US-based and owned fab had the potential to fulfil programs that support US government objectives, particular with the present administration’s focus on US technical leadership and on-shore manufacturing. SkyWater was awarded Category 1A Trusted Foundry by the US Department of Defense within a few weeks of the foundry’s establishment (see SkyWater foundry granted trusted fab status).

That certainly helps bring some contracts in SkyWater’s direction, Sonderman said. And while it is not required directly by other customers, it speaks to the robust information handling systems required to qualify for accepting US government program work. “That security and rigor in handling sensitive information serves to benefit all of SkyWater’s customers regardless of their location,” said Sonderman.

Sonderman said the company intends to pursue both volume production in conventional mixed-signal CMOS and process development that is compatible with manufacturing on 200mm-diameter silicon wafers.

The current stock process is the 130nm S8 process which supports programmable system-on-chip designs with embedded flash and RF and is good for applications in automotive and the Internet of Things. SkyWater can also provide technology to enable infrared imaging with cryo-enabled readout IC’s (ROIC) and MEMS-based microbolometer imaging. SkyWater has standard PDKs [physical design kits] for both 130nm and 90nm.

Next: Technology

At the same time SkyWater is offering R&D facilities to help customers develop technologies and mature them to the point of commercial or production maturity. These innovation engineering services are operating in the areas of superconductivity for quantum and supercomputing, silicon photonics for high-speed communications, MEMS, bio-medical circuits, rad-hard circuitry and more.

SkyWater also offers support to move manufacturing technologies in and out of the fab. This can happen in both directions, Sonderman said.

Sonderman explained that a manufacturing process can be commercialized in Bloomington and taken to reasonable production volume on 200mm wafers there, but when greater volume is required SkyWater would be able to transfer the process out to a higher capacity fab allowing the customer to prosper and allowing SkyWater to make room for more innovation engagements. Similarly, volume foundries often wish to balance their production towards a lower mix of higher volume designs and therefore want to move smaller volume production out. “We are working with a large foundry that is moving technology into our fab. We are in a mode where we can serve that gap in the market,” said Sonderman.

Sonderman emphasized that SkyWater would not operate as an overflow manufacturing facility that could be whiplashed around by bigger foundries. Those transfers in and out would essentially be one-time only. “We are not in the model of a second source. We would own the customer and the relationship,” he said.

Sonderman continued: “The distinction between our Technology Foundry model and the specialty foundry or More-than-Moore foundry is this. The More-than-Moore approach emphasizes the ability to support customers competing behind the leading edge of silicon based on unique IP and the ability to process some materials beyond silicon. SkyWater takes a similar position in the respect that we are supporting geometries not at the leading edge however, we are focused on providing innovation engineering services to customers to develop processes for new technologies and devices that simply wouldn’t be compatible with a PDK at these other fabs.”

Next: Process

One of the most notable and highly differentiated technology being pursued at SkyWater is a carbon nanotube based FET process. This technology is being brought up at SkyWater under a program called 3DSoC and is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) under its Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI).

“The program objective includes demonstrating a monolithically integrated 3DSoC which is anticipated to deliver performance at 90nm geometries with a speed-power advantage of 50x compared with 7nm silicon-based performance. This technology could represent a completely new paradigm for computing and could also be further scaled to more advanced nodes for even greater performance benefits,” said Sonderman.

Inside SkyWater foundry. Source: SkyWater

Low dimensional materials – such as graphene and molybdenum-sulphide – have been under research for a number of years but their debut for the commercial stage is on the horizon, Sonderman said. He also said SkyWater is open to engagements on compound semiconductors such as silicon-germanium, silicon-carbide and gallium-nitride.

“We work in the MEMS space and we are working on image sensors using vanadium-oxide. The silicon photonics work has been going on for three-plus years but is now going into production. The facility has been doing superconducting work with D-Wave [on quantum computing] for six-plus years.

Next: Expansion

“We are seeing strong demand for our Technology Foundry business model and are operating at high fab utilization,” said Sonderman. He said processing 200mm-diameter wafers is the sweet spot for this type of business and he has no plans to move up to 300mm. However, he added that the company is looking at options for expanding capacity, including organic expansion on-site, acquisition and partnership, not only to expand capacity but also capabilities.

Although the Bloomington fab is pretty much full of equipment it does include a significant test facility so changes could be made there, Sonderman said. A second option is to “bump-out” an additional shell module from the existing building to enlarge the cleanroom area.

However, 2019 is going to be about continuing the transition and transformation of SkyWater, said Sonderman. “In 2020 it will be about growth.” He added: “There’s a lot of 200mm capability in the US and Europe. I do think there will be other situations that could be of interest to us.”

Related links and articles:

News articles:

SkyWater foundry begins MPW shuttle service

SkyWater foundry granted trusted fab status

SkyWater foundry formed from Cypress fab sale

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