Force Multiplier: California DREAMS Combines Capabilities from University Nanofabs

| June 21, 2024

The superhub is working to standardize equipment and best practices across its partners.

Nanofab laboratory equipment

Photo Credit: Jonathan Van Dyke/USC ISI

California DREAMS — a USC-led coalition involving 16 university and industry collaborators to boost microelectronics production for 5G/6G and electromagnetic warfare — is exploring its potential to combine the capabilities of its industry-leading institutions into one place.

Seven university nanofabrication laboratories are a part of DREAMS, each with unique strengths that the superhub is working to standardize into a sum even greater than its parts.

Nanofabs provide specialized instruments and experienced, highly trained technical staff who can support users. Traditionally, universities operate their own nanofabs, where university-specific researchers and students can use local capabilities and experiment with creating the next semiconductor and microelectronics advancements.

However that process can be easily delayed or stunted. When someone runs into an issue — the equipment breaks down or needs maintenance, for example — that often causes delays of six months to a year.

“If you have a process that relies on an instrument that is down, you’re done,” said Professor Rehan Kapadia, co-director of MOSIS 2.0, which resides in DREAMS. “For however long that takes to fix.”

In a cross-nanofab ecosystem between DREAMS’ partners, it will be possible to move to a different nanofab that might have the same equipment, saving valuable time and helping accelerate breakthroughs. The work to make this a reality is happening right now. And in time, DREAMS will be able to present a full catalog of equipment and capabilities that stretches across the seven nanofabs, which could lead to new innovations where researchers are no longer confined to their local equipment.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been invested into nanofabs across our hub,” said Kapadia, the Colleen and Roberto Padovani Early Career Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering. “By combining our equipment and capabilities, we can cut down on delays and drive innovation through our united strengths and shared knowledge to accelerate any given project.”

Led by the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, DREAMS is one of eight regional innovation hubs established under the Department of Defense Microelectronics Commons Program, which is funded by the CHIPS and Sciences Act of 2022 to develop onshore microelectronics hardware prototyping, lab-to-fab transition of semiconductor technologies and extended semiconductor workforce training.

A DREAMS team of engineers

MOSIS 2.0 serves as a storefront and central gateway between users and DREAMS’ end-to-end prototyping services, thereby reducing the barriers to innovation. It is building a secure data and analytic architecture to support electronic design automation (EDA) tools, a manufacturability analytics platform, and connectivity to government and superhub-curated intellectual property (IP). A key component of MOSIS 2.0 will be this standardization across the seven university nanofabs: Caltech; University of California, Irvine; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, Riverside; University of California, San Diego; University of California, Santa Barbara; and the University of Southern California.

MOSIS 2.0 employs the Process Integration and Engineering Services (PIES) team, which includes engineers from each university and industrial nanofab within the superhub, with expertise in the full range of deposition, etching, lithography and metrology tools deployed in the superhub for a variety of technology platforms.

Each project is shepherded through the nanofab facilities by a PIES engineer who has specific hands-on expertise in the nanofab tools and procedures needed for the project, and is responsible for designing and executing the project within the superhub.

“By bringing all of these nanofabs under the MOSIS 2.0 umbrella, we’re essentially creating a single point of contact where a user can come in and effectively gain access to all our nanofabs,” Kapadia said. “This has created a closer relationship between all the directors and engineers at each facility, and because there is more communication, there is more sharing of knowledge and information and improved collaboration between the people at all these facilities.”

Accelerating the process

In the world of semiconductors and microelectronics, process engineers put together what is called a process flow: multiple steps that build upon one another until something is produced such as a cellphone computer chip, neural implant, laser pointer or even solar cells. Each step is done by a single machine, instrument or tool.

DREAMS aims to reduce the time it takes to go between steps in a process, while creating standardization where possible. Currently, the nanofabs are being outfitted with more advanced diagnostic capabilities, which should accelerate process transfers. “We want it to take less time to move from one step in the process to the next,” Kapadia said. “Our hope is that in the near future, the development of process flows can be accelerated from a timeframe of months down to days, dramatically accelerating the speed of prototyping.”

Hub Partner PDF Solutions is helping to facilitate part of this process, using its data platform and analytics tools to improve cross-nanofab efficiency and working closely with DREAMS to implement best practices. “Over the last 30 years, we have been enabling the semiconductor industry going from lab-to-fab, and now we can bring the knowledge we’ve accumulated over those years to help the lab-to-fab transformation in the facilities here,” said Steve Zamek, director of product management with PDF Solutions Inc.

A new design frontier

While eliminating delays and pooling knowledge are the most immediate benefits of cross-nanofab collaboration and standardization, MOSIS 2.0 will also have a much larger catalog of equipment for users to leverage. Each nanofab has different specialties, and while there is common equipment across each, there is also unique equipment that was previously only available to a small group of users. By creating a one-stop-shop, MOSIS 2.0 will eventually become a place where process flows could be designed across nanofabs, opening up new possibilities and providing the opportunity for research breakthroughs.

“By unifying these facilities, we essentially have a combination of flexibility and robustness that is not available anywhere else,” Kapadia said.

Published on June 21st, 2024

Last updated on June 21st, 2024

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