Tiny Chiplets: A New Level of Micro Manufacturing

April 8, 2013

Tiny Chiplets: A New Level of Micro Manufacturing

By JOHN MARKOFF

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An enlarged view of small slivers of silicon, each no larger than a grain of sand, called chiplets. Using laser printers, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center may one day be able to create desktop manufacturing plants that use chiplets to “print” the circuitry for a wide array of electronic devices.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Under a microscope, four slivers of silicon — electronic circuits called chiplets — perform an elaborate, jerky dance as if controlled by a hidden puppet master. Then on command, they all settle with pinpoint accuracy, precisely touching a pattern of circuit wires, each at just the right point of contact.

The technology, on display at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, is part of a new system for making electronics, one that takes advantage of a Xerox invention from the 1970s: the laser printer.

If perfected, it could lead to desktop manufacturing plants that “print” the circuitry for a wide array of electronic devices — flexible smartphones that won’t break when you sit on them; a supple, pressure-sensitive skin for a new breed of robot hands; smart-sensing medical bandages that could capture health data and then be thrown away.Today’s chips are made on large wafers that hold hundreds of fingernail-sized dies, each with the same electronic circuit. The wafers are cut into individual dies and packaged separately, only to be reassembled on printed circuit boards, which may each hold dozens or hundreds of chips.

The PARC researchers have a very different model in mind. With financing from the National Science Foundation and from Darpa, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, they have designed a laser-printer-like machine that will precisely place tens or even hundreds of thousands of chiplets, each no larger than a grain of sand, on a surface in exactly the right location and in the right orientation.

The chiplets can be both microprocessors and computer memory as well as the other circuits needed to create complete computers. They can also be analog devices known as microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, that perform tasks like sensing heat, pressure or motion.

The new manufacturing system the PARC researchers envision could be used to build custom computers one at a time, or as part of a 3-D printing system that makes smart objects with computing woven right into them.

The technology is still in the future. The researchers are years from simultaneously placing tens or hundreds of thousands of circuits accurately in a fraction of a second. And they acknowledge that this would be only the first step in designing a commercially viable system.

Still, if the PARC researchers are successful, they will have thrown out 50 years of Silicon Valley conventional wisdom.

A related but simpler technology was pioneered by Alien Technology, a maker of RFID tags in Silicon Valley. Called Fluidic Self Assembly, it is based on suspending small integrated circuits called “nanoblocks” in a fluid and then flowing them over a surface where they drop into tiny holes of corresponding shapes.

Both approaches reverse a five-decade long tradition of making computers faster and more powerful by doubling every two years the number of transistors squeezed onto fingernail-sized computer chips.

The emerging printing technology poses a heretical idea: Rather than squeezing more transistors into the same small space, why not smear the transistors across a much larger surface?

Moreover, the research could have tremendous economic consequences — feeding the emergence of a new digital era in manufacturing, much as laser printing transformed publishing three decades ago.

By replacing the circuit boards now assembled in factories, the technology would vastly compress a supply chain that spans the globe and employs hundreds of thousands of workers.

It is one of a variety of technologies related to 3-D printers, which have captured the public’s imagination, raising the specter of homemade manufacturing of everything from tools to guns.

“Digital fabrication will allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand, wherever and whenever they need them,” Neil Gershenfeld, a physicist who directs the Center for Bits and Atoms at M.I.T., wrote in December in the journal Foreign Affairs.

While there has already been an explosion in 3-D printing of solid and mechanical objects both for prototyping and increasingly for small production runs, PARC’s scientists believe that there will also ultimately be an ensemble of manufacturing technologies that seamlessly blend microelectronics with mechanical components.

“You can print mechanical objects, but a lot of things in the world today are more than mechanical,” said Stephen Hoover, PARC’s chief executive. “A lot of the opportunities we’re going to find in the ‘Internet of things’ are going to be about how to embed intelligence at very low cost in a distributed way into the world.”

The new manufacturing system the PARC researchers envision would allow easier customization. For example, just as today software customizes computers for each purpose, computers in the future could be individually shaped for each system they were added to. Or in the future the computer could just be another part, to be added to the component inventory of a 3-D printing system.

Eugene Chow is an electrical engineer who leads the PARC team that has designed the new technology that they have dubbed “Xerographic micro-assembly.” The technology breaks silicon wafers into tens of thousands of chiplets, bottles them as “ink” and then “prints” them, much as a Xerox laser printer puts toner on paper, he said.

The PARC technology is based on the ability to use computing and an array of electrodes that generate microscopic electrical fields to control the precise placement of tiny electronic circuits — not just in the correct position, but with the proper orientation as well.

“It’s a crazy new revolutionary tool,” Dr. Chow said.

Already, more than half a dozen different printing techniques, from inkjet to gravure to offset printing, have been used to make electronic circuits — a business that was estimated at $9.4 billion last year.

But the PARC researchers argue that all of the current commercialized techniques are limited in that they can’t achieve the transistor density now available through conventional chip manufacturing. So while it is possible to use printing techniques to make a flexible display screen with hundreds or even thousands, of transistors, it cannot be done with millions or billions of transistors, like today’s silicon chips.

The new PARC technology is intended to address that shortcoming and bridge the two worlds by smearing computing power across areas much larger than today’s postage stamp-sized chips.

“This is a very different way to think about electronics,” said Greg Whiting, a senior research scientist at PARC.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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