STMicroelectronics, A*Star unit and Japan's Ulvac in Singapore R&D tie-up

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) – Chipmaker STMicroelectronics will open a cutting-edge research and development (R&D) line at its manufacturing facility in Singapore, in a three-way public-private tie-up announced on Wednesday (Oct 28).

The 1,300 square metre cleanroom, which will focus on piezoelectric micro-electromechanical system (piezo Mems) technology, is expected to produce its first wafers in the second quarter of 2021, and scale up to higher-volume production by end-2022. ST also indicated that it is ready to double the size of the cleanroom if needed.

The planned facility is a collaboration with the Institute of Microelectronics (IME) at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and Japanese tool vendor Ulvac.

Mems are tiny integrated systems used in devices such as sensors and printer heads, and piezo Mems rely on an electric charge generated when stress is applied to materials.

The output from the R&D facility is expected to cut across various market segments, such as smart glasses, healthcare apparatus and 3D printing.

While he would not put a dollar amount to the investment, Benedetto Vigna, president of ST’s analog, Mems and sensors group, said that the value of the initiative “is really very high” on the back of factors such as Singapore’s strategic location and the potential of piezo Mems technology.

The latest move comes just over a year after ST unveiled an enhanced wafer fabrication facility at its Ang Mo Kio “techno-park” premises, which took the capacity of the group’s Singapore operations to 27,500 eight-inch and 84,000 six-inch wafers a week.

Last September’s expansion also took the Singapore workforce size to about 4,900 staff members, but Mr Vigna added that the new facility will feature “several tens” of new and redeployed Mems R&D personnel – including process scientists, engineers and designers.

“We will develop products for different markets, we will develop products for personal electronics, for automotive, for industrial; and then, depending on the success of these products, we will staff properly with the operators,” he added.

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Speaking to The Business Times ahead of the launch, Mr Vigna said that the upcoming “lab in fab” is meant to bridge the gap between prototyping and high-volume production, which he described as “one of the traditional difficulties of Mems”.

While the company had previously co-located Mems R&D and manufacturing in Italy, he said the Singapore site is novel for its collaborative approach.

On top of ST’s background in high-volume production, Ulvac will help to develop new technological processes and more affordable Mems tools, while the IME will work on the design and technology development for materials and products, Mr Vigna noted.

IME executive director Kwong Dim Lee said in a statement that the project “will continue to anchor high-value R&D activities in Singapore” and demonstrates the Republic’s continued attractiveness as a place for industry players to innovate and grow.

“A*Star is also committed to helping local (small and medium-sized enterprises) tap into our technologies. We welcome companies to collaborate with IME and leverage our lab-in-fab facilities for proof of concept,” Dr Kwong added.

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