When Tezzaron Semiconductor Corp. stepped in last week to acquire an Austin, Texas-chip fab formerly run by SVTC Technologies LLC, headlines focused mainly on the more than 100 jobs the action saved. It turns out that Tezzaron's move may have saved more than that.
The fab, which was formerly run by the Sematech research consortium before it moved most of its operations to upstate New York in 2007, is the only fab left in North America where customers can get advanced ICs with copper metallization layers built on a foundry basis, according to Robert Patti, Tezzaron's chief technology officer. Its closure would have forced dozens of customers making chips for industries like defense, aerospace, life sciences and clean energy to move production off shore, he said.
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"The big reason we were interested in acquiring the fab is because it's domestic and has copper capability," Patti said. "Beyond that, it also has 300-mm capability for a lot of the processes we are doing."
Tezzaron—which makes 3-D ICs and advanced memory devices—won't say how much it paid for the Austin fab. The company stepped in to take over just a couple weeks after SVTC announced it planned to close the facility almost immediately, leaving foundry customers scrambling for a solution. Because DoD rules require that certain parts be made in the U.S., shipping production off shore was not an option for some customers.
"The loss of this facility would have been very difficult for DoD [U.S. Department of Defense] programs across the board," Patti said in an interview last week.
The Austin chip fab once operated by Sematech and SVTC, now the property of Tezzaron Semiconductor.
According to Patti, many customers were shocked that SVTC planned to close the fab—and even more shocked that the announcement offered such short notice. Patti said Tezzaron—which was an SVTC customer with many parts being built in the facility—was virtually the only company that could have stepped in and saved the fab so quickly. Tezzaron does a fair amount of government work, but also has a significant base of commercial customers, Patti said. The U.S. government prefers to do business with companies that have stable revenue from commercial industry, he said.
The narrowly avoided calamity over the fab's imminent closure highlights a bigger issue. The bulk of semiconductor manufacturing has migrated from the U.S. to Asia, creating a shortage in the number of fabs in the U.S. that can make parts for the U.S. military. The DoD and National Security Agency's joint Trusted Foundry program outlines stringent security requirements for facilities that make critical parts for the DoD.
@resistion- this is obviously pretty specialized stuff. It may seem like the number of foundry players is increasing, but it's not necessarily so.
I bounced your question off Bill McClean of IC Insights. He said:
"There is an occasional startup in pure-play and IDM foundries but it is offset by pure-play mergers (e.g., HHNEC and Grace, GF and Chartered, etc.) and IDMs exiting the foundry business. Overall, I don't think the total number of companies involved in foundry is changing much."
IC Insights tracks more than 20 pure play foundries and at least 26 IDMs that do some foundry work.