GlobalFoundries Bets on U.S. DoD to Strengthen Chip Supply

Article By : George Leopold

The multinational foundry sees packaging, not lithography, as the way forward, and the U.S. DoD as a key customer...

As the U.S. looks to reconstitute its semiconductor supply lines, GlobalFoundries is positioning itself as a trusted chipmaker for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The company claims that it can scale production of key components like radiation-hardened chips while creating multiple manufacturing sources.

As Moore’s Law runs out of steam, the foundry operator also is betting on greater efficiencies through chip integration rather than finer lithography.

A trade war with China and tightened U.S. export controls aimed at telecom giant Huawei have created openings for both GlobalFoundries and rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC). As Washington seeks to cut off access by Huawei and its HiSilicon chip unit to leading-edge IC manufacturing gear, U.S. trade officials wait to see whether TSMC will make good on plans to build a fab in Arizona.

The proposed facility would help assuage Pentagon fears of losing access to advanced chip technologies.

GlobalFoundries, a long-time supplier to the U.S. military, has countered by establishing itself as the Pentagon’s primary source of IC foundry capacity.

The company announced plans in May to implement U.S. export controls at its most advanced fab in Malta, N.Y. The $13 billion expansion of Fab 8 includes compliance with the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and Export Administration Regulations. The company hopes to ultimately scale secure production to the 12-nm FinFET process node.

“Part of our thinking of doing the ITAR certification in Fab 8 [in Malta was to] just take some friction out of the system,” said Mike Hogan, GlobalFoundries’ general manager for aerospace and defense. “We’re trying to take roadblocks out of the way to get more to a ready-to-act-posture.”

In May, GlobalFoundries also shuttered a proposed wafer fab in Chengdu, China.

Mike Hogan

Those moves along with a recent partnership with Skywater would allow GlobalFoundries to compete for a potential windfall of government investment in domestic chip making. The company is forecasting about $47 billion in foundry spending by 2024.

Hogan said the SkyWater’s 90-nm rad-hard technology along GlobalFoundries’ backend process technology could well serve as a starting point. The combination could lay the groundwork for “both additional technology development based on joint IP and the benefit of scale and potential multi-sourcing — all things that are very relevant to what’s going on [within] DoD,” Hogan noted in an interview.

The partnership could help promote SkyWater’s foundry services model for modest but ITAR-compliant volumes. It would also create a second, trusted source of military components. Hogan described the partners as “birds of a feather.”

Minnesota-based SkyWater has said the partnership includes cross-licensing provisions along with a range of possible projects that could help repatriate capabilities like test and assembly as well as advanced IC packaging.

To that end, GlobalFoundries argues that DoD chip technology requirements can be met via component integration rather than simply moving to the next, expensive process node to achieve performance gains. Indeed, DoD and the military services have both funded chip- packaging efforts, including SkyWater’s efforts to integrate its proprietary copper interconnect technology into its rad-hard products.

“As semiconductor demand becomes more diverse, the number of [customers] who can start by writing a $10 million check for the privilege of trying to build a chip, that percentage of the customer base becomes smaller and smaller,” Hogan argued.

“What we’ve seen in those high-mix applications [with] modest volumes is a different way to look at integration,” Hogan added. Instead, GlobalFoundries’ sees combining components like battery management, RF and microcontrollers with embedded memory as “a more compelling” approach, Hogan said. Among the outcomes could be emerging capabilities like a “packaging-as-a-service capability” that could help a revived U.S. chip industry move up the manufacturing learning curve via packaging rather than through prohibitively expensive lithography, he added.

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