By Charles F Moreira, Editor
Leoben, Austria-headquartered AT&S Austria Technologie & Systemtechnik AG will introduce a first-of-kind technology to Malaysia when its production plant in Kulim, Kedah begins commercial production of ABF technology-based IC substrates around the end of 2024 or early 2025, its Chief Executive Officer Andreas Gerstenmayer and AT&S Chief Operating Officer Ingolf Schroeder said at a media conference in Kuala Lumpur on 28th October 2021.
Construction of the first phase of the plant began with the groundbreaking on 30th October 2021, and AT&S proposes to invest a total of RM8.5 billion on this first phase. Space on the site is reserved for a second-phase expansion at a yet undisclosed future date.
IC substrates are custom-built, multi-layer printed circuit boards (PCBs) upon which electronic modules comprised of interconnected chips and components which perform specific functions, which are surfaced mounted to the main PCB.
For example, a circuit comprised of a CPU chip, graphic processor chip and memory chips can be built on an IC substrate PCB, which is then surface mounted on the main motherboard PCB.
IC substrates help to save space and reduce the overall footprint of the circuit boards, which is essential today, especially when they have to fit within small devices such as smartphones, hearing aids, industrial Internet of things (IoT) devices, circuits used in high-performance computing, consumer electronics, end-user computers, in servers, cellular base station equipment, semiconductor products, in automotive electronics, in avionics equipment, in industrial electronic devices, in medical electronics and so forth.
As integrated circuits (IC’s) such as CPUs became larger and more complex since the mid-1990s, with many times more connectors than the earlier lead-frame configuration CPU integrated circuits (ICs) which had up to 40 pins connected directly to the bond pads on the silicon chip hermetically sealed within a plastic or ceramic casing; these IC substrates effectively serve as adaptors or “extensions” between the silicon IC with its nanometre-scale (billionth of a metre) circuit dimensions and the mother-PCB with its micrometre-scale (millionth of a metre) circuit dimensions.
As a matter of interest, using electron microscopy, researchers have found the diameter of the SARS-Cov-2 virus which causes the COVID-19 illness to range between 50 and 140 nanometres. New Intel processors launched at the CES in Las Vegas last January are based upon a 10 nanometre architecture.
High-performance processors require high-performance ABF substrates and this growing demand supports AT&S’s growth strategy. Servers, networking, AI and gaming are driving the trend
towards significantly bigger and more complex substrates, with increased substrate size, increased layer count and increased speed, so AT&S is significantly increasing capacities for highly complex substrates to support these technology developments.
What are ABF substrates?
The acronym “ABF” stands for “Ajinomoto Build-up Film”, a sheet material developed in 1996 by Ajinomoto researcher Shigeo Nakamura when the Japanese company, better known for its food seasoning, was approached by a CPU maker about developing a film-type insulator using amino acid technology.
Nakamura’s insulator sheet is comprised of organic epoxy resins, hardener, and inorganic, micro-particle filler which provides superior levels of advanced electrical insulation between the multiple layers of the IC substrate PCB.
In essence, the IC substrate serves as a “bed” for the CPU and associated components, which is composed of multiple layers of microcircuits, known as a “build-up substrate”, and ABF facilitates the formation of these micrometer-scale circuits, because its surface is receptive to laser processing and direct copper plating.
“Everything related to substrates is similar to the semiconductor industry”, said Schroeder.
Yes, whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to go into the details, both the processes involved in semiconductor wafer fabrication in foundries and multi-layer PCB fabrication are somewhat similar to the repeated wax, dye, wash, and dry process employed in batik making, though much more high-tech and sophisticated.
Timeline to going live.
AT&S announced its choice of Kulim Hi-Tech Park for its high-end PCB and IC substrate production in a press release on 10 June 2021 and piling and laying of the foundation for its Kulim plant has just begun, with “roof closing” planned for October 2020, after which state-of-the-art equipment, including 2,000 high-tech machines will be installed from March 2023, with product qualifications scheduled in 2024, with production going live at the end of 2024 or early 2025.
AT&S plans for its Kulim plant to go live with a total of around 6,000 highly qualified personnel, including 1,500 of whom will be specialists, managers, and leaders in the areas of electronic, mechanical, and chemical engineering, and business. Recruitment of these white-collar employees began in October 2021, with virtual training and e-learning for them having begun this November 2021, with on-site training at AT&S’s plant in Chongqing, China by the end of 2022.
At the same time, AT&S is also looking for about 4,500 blue-collar workers who can work in a highly sophisticated shop floor environment. The company expects to have a total of 3,000 employees by the end of 2023, when it will focus on its blue-collar employees with further trainings, and it expects to have the full compliment of 6,000 employees by the end of 2024.
Level of automation
What levels of advanced automation, including up to Industry 4.0 generation will the AT&S plant adopt, including intelligent, interconnected?
“Our back-end operations will be highly automated and connected, including the manufacturing execution system (MES) which will include big data, analytics and so forth”, said Schroeder.
According to Wikipedia, MES are computerised systems used in manufacturing to track and document the transformation of raw materials to finished goods in real-time. It provides information that helps manufacturing decision makers understand how current conditions on the plant floor can be optimised to improve production output.
MES works in real time to enable the control of multiple elements of the production process (e.g. inputs, personnel, machines and support services). Other benefits from successful MES implementation may include – reduced waste, re-work and scrap, including quicker setup times; More accurate capture of cost-information (e.g. labour, scrap, downtime, and tooling); Increased uptime; Incorporate paperless workflow activities; Manufacturing operations traceability; Decreases downtime and easy fault finding; and Reduced inventory, through the eradication of just-in-case inventory.
“Whilst our front-end will also be highly automated and we are working to get the highest level of production floor operators, however since our front-end operations involve wet chemical processes, we cannot leave them to run automatically unattended, so still need (human) observers and operators”, said Schroeder.
“Already today, Malaysia is an important hub for the chip supply chain. We are convinced that Malaysia can further strengthen its position as a technology country and will develop its position in the region as a high-tech manufacturing hub in Asia”, said Gerstenmayer.
“AT&S brings the latest generation of high-end technologies to Malaysia and will establish a completely new technology sector in one of the future global microelectronic hotspots. In addition to manufacturing high-tech products, extensive R&D activities will also be conducted at this new
site,” said Schroeder.
However, despite that, Gerstenmayer believes that most of its customers will be in the United States, where most of the major electronics industries are located. He expects the AT&S plant in Kulim to have between one and five major customers, including original equipment manufacturers, most of whom will be in the U.S.
As for research and development (R&D) partners, nothing has been finalised as yet. AT&S has been in discussion on forming partnerships with technical and general universities in Malaysia in areas of education, science, engineering and economics.
These universities include Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Kuala Lumpur, Universiti Malaysia Perlis, University Malaya Kuala Lumpur and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and AT&S will build links between them and universities in Europe, such as the Technical University of Graz.
AT&S is also evaluating R&D partnerships with non-academic parties.
Strengthening Malaysia’s position as a global microelectronics hotspot will require close collaboration with AT&T’s headquarters in Austria as well as extensive R&D activities on-site.
Besides IC substrates, AT&S also manufacturers high-end PCBs for a slew of different industries. Besides it headquarters in Leoben, its production plant in Chongqing, China and its plant being built in Kulim, AT&S has facilities or plants in Fehring, Austria, Nanjangud, India, Shanghai, China and Ansan in South Korea.