First 300mm fab for the UK

First 300mm fab for the UK

Business news |
By Nick Flaherty

PragmatIC Semiconductor has announced the UK’s first 300mm fab for its plastic chips.

The fab in Durham, north east UK, will make up to 10 billion RFID plastic chips a year on 300mm glass wafers as substrates.

“We have room not just for the second fab but four or five there and as part of that we are trying to create a hub around there with space for ecosystems for design assembly and integration,” Scott White, CEO of PragmatIC told eeNews Europe.

“We have close links with Durham University and New College Durham with employer led training to keep the pipeline of talent,” he said.

The fab will use brand new 300mm back end of line processing equipment, using a 300mm circular glass carrier. ”We coat everything on that, then peel it off and reuse the glass a carriers which means we can use silicon equipment.”

Using a thin film plastic process avoids many of the issues with chemicals and water faced by silicon fabs, he says. This is also a faster process, as a substrate can be processed in as little as eight hours, compared to weeks for a silicon wafer.

“We don’t have any of the unusual supply chain issues as we don’t process silicon. We do have standard thin film deposition and photolithography but at a smaller scale,” said White. “The water consumption is probably 1000x smaller than Intel’s fab, and 100x lower than a similar capacity silicon fab.”

“The total cycle time is less than 24 hours, its naturally that fast and an expedited batch is as little as 8 hours. It’s two weeks for total time from tapeout to delivered wafers. One of the things that has been a huge driver is the speed of iterating designs and production so you can optimise for specific designs.”

“The fab requires few people to run, its fully automated and only requires a handful of people but we have been scaling up all the surrounding capability, process engineering, design support, so we have increased in size from 90 staff in October to 150 now and we are still growing,” he said.

The designs so far, including an ARM Cortex M0+ and 6502 processors, have used an NMOS process. The company has been developing a CMOS process.

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“It is forward compatible with our CMOS process but the focus of 80% of activity is NMOS. It opens up an even larger set of applications but there’s more than enough business for the current capacity,” said White. “It is proven in R&D but it depends on customers.”

The fab in Durham will act as a foundry for customers but also as the development centre.

“One of the interesting aspects we have seen is the real opportunity is putting fabs on site in customer premises, even with a moderate sized customer with that rapid cycle time,” said White. “So we plan to have over 100 fabs globally all modelled on the Fab 2 in Durham within the next two years. One of the constraints is lead time on equipment so that may be gating factor for how quickly we can roll these out.”

Part of this localisation is driven by the packaging needs.

“We are working with a number of partners on packaging, mainly we have been focussed on RFID integration, [moving the devices] onto a wafer frame for roll to roll flip chip machine and we have started to explore using standard pick and place and other assembly processes,” said White.  

“This is trying to make the entire supply chain as efficient as possible and eliminate the time delays of a normal electronics supply chain. This ties in with the way the industry is already working. This already has a very distributed model with packaging as close to the end brands as possible with the economies of scale,” he said.

The company is installing its own roll to roll machine at the Durham site. “The roll to roll machine is already on order as a reference line to prove the process, not for commercial production but to improve the process. We’ve bought our own tool to us but as we develop the site we see equipment manufacturers or the packaging companies having their own development facilities here,” he said.  

“We want is to put these on customer sites but there’s always going to be the need for capacity for smaller companies and continuing to grow the technology,” he said. “We want this to be in the UK and as the hub but at the end of the day if there’s a more compelling offer to go elsewhere we have to do the best thing for shareholders.”

R&D roadmap

As well as introducing a CMOS process to add more computing capability, the company is developing other technologies such as Schottky diodes for higher frequency products. It is also looking at ways to add sensors to the thin film process for more integrated chips for the healthcare, the Internet of Things and other applications.

“What we have today is an IC process but the core IP is around the process, so we look at what other thin film technologies can you add,” said White. “The most exciting area is in ubiquitous healthcare with wearable patches with huge potential and relies on the thin flexible, high volume low cost sensing and power technologies.”

“The further we go down that route the broader our platform becomes and the easier it is to stay independent – the intent and desire is to do it in the UK,” he said.

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