Qorvo Advances in RF “SHIP” Program

Article By : Don Scansen

The latest from the SHIP program was a $75 million commitment to Qorvo for its RF production and prototyping center...

The latest from the State-of-the-Art Heterogeneous Packaging and Prototyping (SHIP) program was a $75 million commitment to Qorvo for its RF production and prototyping center. You may recall that about a year ago, Qorvo was among the early entries in the SHIP program along with Intel, Xilinx, Northrop Grumman, GE, and Keysight Technologies.  The funding will be used to expand the capability and capacity of Qorvo’s Advanced Microwave Module Assembly (AMMA) in Richardson, Texas.

I had the chance to speak to Dean White, director of defense & aerospace market strategy by video link from Richardson. After helping me wrap my head around the programs and the history of SHIP, I asked Dean why this award went to Qorvo, especially since Intel was already announced as a funding recipient to develop heterogeneous packaging.

“The SHIP program is split into two tracks — digital and RF. For advanced packaging prototyping and development, Intel is digital while we are RF. In the RF space, Qorvo is unique in size in that we are a three billion dollar company. The revenue contribution is about 80 percent commercial and 20 percent defense. Qorvo has a track record of fast ramps to high volume manufacturing. In some cases, we ship a million parts a day.”

Dean White

Dean has a long history of directing packaging at Qorvo, and prior to the merger with RFMD, with TriQuint. He led Qorvo’s proposal effort to land the SHIP award. Dean manages the defense and aerospace side of Qorvo’s business, so that was a natural fit. But he also has a keen sense of what the commercial side is able to accomplish and how it benefits the defense business as well as the government’s long-range strategy with SHIP.

I was curious whether SHIP and related programs are driven more by the US Department of Defense anticipated need for advanced technology for the military or ensuring domestic competitiveness for commercial enterprises. This was a bit naïve since the two goals are inseparable. DoD and its contractors need access to the most advanced technology out there, and the best way is for commercial enterprises to thrive.

The 80-20 rule of Qorvo is an excellent model for that. Commercial products keep techniques and processes current and up to speed when the military has a need. The other thing is manufacturing ramp and volume. The armed forces don’t always need production, but when they do, the need may be extremely critical.

Qorvo already produces very heterogeneously integrated front-end modules for cellular handsets. There is a good chance your own cell phone has a few Qorvo modules, at least one of which might contain a silicon chip for switching, a GaAs low noise amplifier and a GaN power amplifier. Qorvo’s product development is driven to use the best substrate for the specific task. System integration in the package is the approach.

Since Qorvo is already heavily invested in heterogeneous integration for RF front end modules, one may wonder why the SHIP program was even necessary. Of course, $75 million is always nice, but how critical was it to Qorvo’s manufacturing capability? As White put it, “The development of AMMA was on our roadmap, but the SHIP funding will get us there faster and allow us to offer a secure US based design, assembly and test service to defense customers at an affordable price.”

Qorvo will use the financial support to enable or accelerate these initiatives:

  • Increased automation for assembly tools
  • Expanded technology offerings
  • Research into new packaging types – 2.5 and 3D
  • Development of foundry models.

One of the key points White made was that the Richardson AMMA site will expand production to a foundry model for packaging. Qorvo will allocate considerable resources to create the interconnect electrical models and thermal models that can be bundled into development kits for future outsourced assembly and test clients. The Advanced Microwave Module Assembly plant will eventually be open to defense contractors looking to create their own heterogeneous system modules that can be prototyped, ramped, and manufactured in volume at the Richardson site.

Qorvo’s Richardson TX Plant (source: Qorvo)

The official press release from Qorvo highlights many things confirmed in my conversation with White.

“Qorvo holds a Defense Microelectronics Activity (DMEA) Category 1A trusted source certification for package assembly, test and wafer foundry services at its Richardson, TX location. Qorvo further provides defense customers with greater value by applying high-yield manufacturing and scale expertise gained from serving the commercial market – where it supplies more than four billion heterogeneous modules annually.”

Let’s tick some boxes:

  • Secure manufacturing: 
  • High volume (4 billion modules per year):
  • Domestic: big

This last point should not be underestimated. Qorvo is a model for the potential of US-based manufacturing. Everything they do from their GaAs and GaN wafer foundries, through package assembly and test, is carried out completely inside the US. That is comforting, especially for the military.

As White helped me understand, the concept of the SHIP program is that companies spend time in development, but they need to create self-sustaining profitable enterprises after four years. The Defense Department sees the need for viable domestic manufacturing that is at the ready with cutting edge technology that can be applied to military applications as needs arise.

For now, the heterogeneous packaging tracks of the SHIP program will continue along more or less distinct tracks. Intel will be developing digital technologies while Qorvo will handle RF integration. When asked about the opportunity to merge the two, Dean White noted that this was definitely the hope for the future since digital processing and the RF piece of acquiring electromagnetic data and connecting devices wirelessly are critical to defense needs. The Department of Defense surely envisions some collaborative effort between the Intel digital and Qorvo RF SHIP contributors leading to new integration techniques and products. For now, though, we might need an over the horizon radar to detect them.

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