Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Deca lands a 1-2 WLCSP punch -- and you won't see it coming

Amid the elegance of T.J. Rodgers' (Cypress Semiconductor president & CEO) home and winery in Woodside, CA, a new company -- Deca Technologies -- was announced to the media. The company's 67 employees plan to transform the interconnect space by wielding a disruptive cost structure (left jab!) and lightning speed of execution (right hook!) to do new product introductions in minutes rather than days or weeks. The combination of speed, low cost, and flexibility tackles the problem of packaging costs that haven't come down commensurate with Moore's Law scaling progress.

Deca's first product is a series of WLCSP "derivatives" (see table below). The initial TAM for fan-in WLCSP is $2B by 2016 (a CAGR of 14.7% between 2010-2016) noted Deca's president & CEO, Tim Olson, citing data from Yole. Also invoked was Jan Vardaman's (president and founder of TechSearch International) projection that with respect to Deca's initial product offering, "WLPs will maintain double-digit unit growth with a CAGR of 12.5% and annual volumes exceeding 20 billion units by 2014."

Deca says it can go from design to manufacturing in under 60 minutes. And with respect to total manufacturing cycle time, by late 2012 or early 2013 Deca expects to have a three-day cycle time for wafers going through its autoline factory. In comparison, Olson said that the current Tier-1 SATS average about 17 days of manufacturing cycle time. Currently, six customers are engaged (five of the six are $1B+) with one customer already qualified for production. Three more customers are in the process of qualification, and the company expects the remaining two customers to begin qualification within 90 days. More customers are expected to sign on in 1Q12.

Don't expect any fab tours or boasting from equipment suppliers about what they just sold to Deca, however. With the financial roots of the company in Silicon Valley (Cypress Semiconductor invested $35M) -- an area that made paranoia a virtue -- Olson, said that two-thirds of the company's equipment wouldn't even be known or familiar to semiconductor manufacturers, or even found anywhere else in the world. Additionally, the equipment that is used is very low-cost, nowhere near approaching the high pricetags normally associated with fab equipment. The production line itself is set up along kanban principles based on SunPower's experience.

Most of the equipment has been customized/modified by Deca; unlike semiconductor fab equipment, Deca does not use batch-based equipment. And though no one external to the company -- not even customers -- are allowed inside the fab (located inside SunPower's fab in the Philippines), if you could go in, all the equipment is the same color; there are no name plates. You would be unable to figure out who made anything, said Olson. (Perhaps the moral of this story: if you can go from a design to manufacturing in under 60 minutes, you can rewrite the rules of engagement with customers and they will love it.) The company has either indefinite or multi-year exclusivity agreements with equipment suppliers. There are also strict terms that prevent equipment suppliers from the sale of the same or similar equipment. Olson also credited Cypress' equipment specification/procurement/qualification process as being a major factor in its success to date. The only equipment factoid Olson did acknowledge was that conventional lithography technology is not being used.

Further "cloaking" is achieved because the company is paranoid even with third parties who have NDAs; line access is highly restricted, and there is extreme sensitivity with respect to the company's trade secrets, said Olson. The only customer Deca is willing to divulge publicly is Cypress Semiconductor, but Olson said the company has contracts with several major high-volume manufacturers (they didn't go after the little guys, he noted). And though SunPower invested an undisclosed amount of capital in Deca, and gave Deca half of SunPower's fab space (Laguna Technopark, Philippines) to use, as well as human resources, and process/operational know-how (Deca has exclusive access to SunPower's IP in its domain) -- it is not a customer. (It wouldn't need to be, of course, because SunPower taught Deca what it knows about extremely fast HVM.) One of the contributing factors that brought the companies together was the realization that almost all of the back-end-of-line processes used by SunPower for its solar cell map are 1:1 with those used by Deca for its 4-series WLCSP (2× and ball drop) product: patterned polymer, cure, PVD seed, plating template, electroplate, and strip/etch/clean.

To its credit, Deca took another page from SunPower's playbook: it hires degreed engineers to run the fab equipment. The fact that these are operators who want solid engineering careers and not people who might drift from one company to another is seen as an asset, which further adds protection to the company's IP. Having engineers run things and not allowing equipment suppliers' field personnel to work on equipment prevents "leaks" in IP and process know-how, Rodgers added.

[Here's some more "back story" about the company: Part of the launch event was a tour of T.J. Rodgers' winery conducted by Rodgers himself. He designed some of the equipment used in his winemaking process -- metering techniques, piping, and such (some of his inventions for winemaking are patented). When Deca was designing its fab, he contributed some of what he learned from being a vintner to the fab design.]

When asked about the possibility that other packaging suppliers and foundries could copy Deca's strategy and model, Rodgers said that it would require a paradigm shift from the "fab mentality" -- i.e., batch-based equipment with high pricetags. He pointed out that, to date, no one has been able to copy SunPower's manufacturing approach. Even if competitors could figure out the kind of equipment and modifications needed to copy the methodology, Rodgers said Deca has too great a lead. "Getting a lead and being able to sustain it is huge," he said.

(posted by Debra Vogler, senior technical editor)

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