SEOUL — Dongbu HiTek is not exactly a household name in the foundry business like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., GlobalFoundries, and Samsung. But Dongbu, a company described by some as the industry's best kept secret, has been sharpening its strategy, honing its skills, and steadily expanding capacity in South Korea under Chang-Sik Choi, who became its president and CEO a year and a half ago.
Choi came to Dongbu after spending 30 years of his career at Samsung Electronics. Having worked at Samsung in diversified semiconductor fields ranging from memory and system SoC development to running fabs and leading a solar cell project, Choi is bringing to Dongbu "hard work, faster decision making, and clarity in setting goals and how to achieve them" -- hallmarks of Samsung's hard-to-beat business strengths -- according to Choi's subordinates and Choi himself.
Dongbu HiTek CEO Chang-Sik Choi speaks at the Analog Semiconductor Leaders' Forum in Seoul
Dongbu, which styles itself as a specialty foundry, has been zeroing in on manufacturing analog and power, mixed signal, and high voltage CMOS products.
Christian Gregor Dieseldorff, senior analyst and director of market research at Semiconductor Equipment Materials International (SEMI), told us Dongbu ranks 11th in terms of foundry capacity place, after HH Grace but before CR Micro. China's Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), viewed by some as Dongbu's competitor, ranks with about 240K wafers (200mm) in 2013. And IC Insights ranked Dongbu ninth in revenue in 2011 and 2012.
Despite its middle-of-the-pack market rank, Dongbu has been raising its capacity in the last few years. It's poised to take advantage of the growing market for smartphones and tablets, whose chip content includes a host of analog ICs for power, sensor, display, touch, audio, video, compass, gyroscope, accelerometer, and other functions.
Dongbu's growing capacity.
(Source: Dongbu HiTek)
Customers include Asahi Kasei Microdevices Corp. (AKM), which IHS iSuppli has described as "the world's largest supplier of silicon magnetic sensors" thanks to its key design wins in Apple's iPad and iPhone. AKM "led the market because of huge strides in supplying Hall electronic magnetic compasses." These compasses are used in products like cellphones, tablets, digital still cameras, portable navigation devices, and MP3 players.
Transition to 300mm wafers?
Dongbu has fabs in Bucheon and Emsung; both are 200mm facilities. Its maximum capacity jumped from 94K wafers per month last year to 110K wafers in 2013 and will expand to 120K in 2014. It also has an empty shell in its Fab 2-module 2.
During an exclusive interview with EE Times, the Dongbu CEO downplayed the current lack of a 300mm facility. "Is 300mm important for us? Yes and no," he said.
A larger wafer size means more dies, which leads to cost reduction. There is also performance increase in terms of speed. But you could lose your accuracy and precision in your products by going for a smaller geometry.
This, of course, is a standard answer. But a little later in the interview, Choi, rather surprisingly, casually added: "We may start using 300mm wafers in our empty shell in the near future."
Industry experts say that the transition to 300mm will be important to Dongbu's business in the future, since 200mm wafers are expected to become marginal over time. As TSMC moves digital to GigaFabs, it will move its 300mm wafer facilities to "More-than-Moore" processes (such as MEMS). It can do so at aggressive nodes. In short, Dongbu's competition won't be limited to just other specialty foundries such as Tower Jazz and Vanguard -- for long.