Etching an indelible mark in the sophisticated electronic substrate segment

Date:   Saturday , June 28, 2008

A substrate niche

There are a number of allied technologies that go into the manufacture of advanced microchip components that are integral parts of gadgets and applications that are in everyday use. These technologies contribute to the sophistication of the gadgets in no simple way.

CW Microtech is a technology leader in the niche segment of design and fabrication of substrates that form part of the chips that go into laptops, cell phones, TVs, and so on. The company has its headquarters in Martinsville, Virginia and caters to the needs of a wide spectrum of industries. These advanced thick film and thin film substrates are the backbone of the microchips that are carried by them.

Dhirendra, President of CW Microtech, has utilized his in-depth hands on experience in the substrate and high volume assembly to transform the company into a full service contract manufacturer of ceramic substrates and hybrid assembly. Now CW Microtech stands out in the crowd as it is the leading company, according to him, that has the capability to provide end-to-end services, all carried out under one roof.

After the dicing of microchips (or ICs) from a wafer, these are sequentially assembled on a carrier, which hold them in to be connected to other components or outside world. The carrier is normally either made of organic or inorganic substrate. CW Microtech has in-house capability to manufacture inorganic substrate, which are made of Alumina, Alumina Nitride, Beryllium Oxide, etc. The substrates have the required thermal and electrical properties for high end application. The substrate also carries capacitors, resistors, diodes, and other intricate electronic components that connect to other chips to form a working device. Complicated technological processes are involved in the design and manufacture of these ceramic substrates that have chips and passive components mounted on them.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and component manufacturers in the optical, RF (radio frequency), MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems), LED (Light Emitting Device), biomedical, defense, space, Auto and semiconductor markets are among the customers that consume a large quantity of ceramic substrates.

The complex technology

The technology used in the manufacture of substrates consists of several delicate processes. The low end products like the PCBs and PC mother boards may have organic substrates made of plastics that have average electrical and thermal properties.

The choice of material employed for packaging and interconnection is based on the requirements set by engineering system design considerations and reliability of the end product. Solving problems of thermal management, die-testing, and economic feasibility of production processes are challenges faced by the designers and manufacturers. The inorganic substrates that are used in the high end applications are manufactured from special materials like alumina, aluminum nitride, and beryllium oxide. For instance, the thermal and electrical performance of the ceramic substrate, on which a RF antenna chip is mounted, is very critical to its flawless function.

Thick film substrate, thin film substrate, and LTCC (Low Temperature Co-fired Ceramic) are three classes of inorganic substrates used in high end applications including military gadgets. CW Microtech has the necessary technology and skilled employees that are adept in designing and manufacturing substrates for high reliability application as well as for high volume. The company boasts of 90 years of combined experience in substrate technology and it has the technological expertise to etch lines and spaces of 0.0013”.
The thick film substrate has wider applications as it is cheaper and easier to manufacture. The thick film substrates, used in many applications, are made of base materials; such as, Alumina, AlN, and BeO. The width of these lines and spaces vary from 0.005” to 0.010”, i.e. 125 microns to 250 microns.

The thin film substrate provides high-degree of integration, stability and precise interconnects for high-frequency applications. Depending on the film thickness, 5 to 20 microns line and width trace can be achieved. The lines are etched as per design layout from a gold sputtered substrate; thus, the thin film substrate is very expensive.

The LTCC is a ceramic wiring carrier with a multi-layer structure. It has coefficient of thermal expansion close to that of silicon. The LTCC substrates are superb in heat dissipation as thermal vias are located under bare chips. LTCC is exceptionally useful in high end military and bio medical applications. In LTCC, cavities, ducts, etc can be produced to have hermetic products for high reliability application. The multi-layer high performance substrate is also very expensive

Competition, partnership, and growth

A niche business relies heavily on the technological capabilities that enable a company to meet the customers’ requirements while circumventing the constraints. The business policies of CW Microtech have resulted in the acquisition of technological capabilities towards this end.

Dhirendra is able to engage with the customers at the planning stage of design itself and provide them guidance, thru his vast experience in designing and assembly, in determining the optimum design of substrate that will best suit the customers’ technical requirements and help them to achieve the most cost effective solution.

The capability to carry out all the precision processes involved in designing, manufacturing, testing, and assembling of a substrate, to the specifications required by the customer, under one roof places CW Microtech at an advantageous position as this helps enormously reduce the cycle time to deliver the end product. The high precision laser cutting, laser trimming and etching technology provides the ability to manufacture and assemble substrates that have various contours along with electrical requirement of the design. The in-house manufacturing facilities help to reduce customers’ cost and quick feedback if there is any potential issue with quality, design or performance. Many of the competing companies outsource some of these processes.

Outsourcing is both strength and a weakness. It is strength if it augments the capabilities of a company to meet the demands of the client. It becomes a weakness if the company unavoidably relies on the support of external service providers to meet its commitments to the client.

The special partnership CW Microtech team has been able to successfully forge with DuPont has ensured the supply of the latest ceramic material know-how that suits the fast growing demand for superior substrate base, giving CW Microtech a technological edge over others.

The past and the future

Many of the substrate manufacturing companies in the U.S. were started as single owner companies in the late 1960s and the early ‘70s. These companies do not have big plans to expand their operations to become end-to-end providers of finished substrates to their customers.

CW Microtech, founded as a VC funded venture in 2004, was on the verge of closure when Dhirendra acquired it in 2006 and transformed it into a leading manufacturer of ceramic substrates. The company saw an increase of 200% in sales last year. Defense customers have been the mainstay so far, as they account for over 30 % of the business. Consumer, RF, optoelectronics, and MEMS form the next big group. The ability to provide complete turn-key solutions, design and manufacture of substrates that are integral to the development of sophisticated electronic gadgets, has made the company stand on a firm footing and look forward to faster growth ahead.

Failure to establish centers in other geographies and diversify into related areas of business could seriously hamper the prospects of companies in the present times. No business that is confined to one location has any bright hope of opportunities for growth and survival in this high competition era of globalization. CW Microtech is in growing mode by qualifying in-house assembly process for high volume as well as by exploring Indian semiconductor assembly market thru joint venture. CW Microtech has acquired advanced process equipments and a fully confident Dhirendra has plans to expand the company’s operations and LTCC capabilities in the U.S. as well as in India where the customers may initially get their substrates manufactured and supplied from the U.S. facility.