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LFoundry: New Frontiers, New Opportunities

David Lammers

It was Charles Darwin who famously argued that a species’ chance for survival depended not on its size or strength, but on its ability to adapt. Flexibility is equally important in the semiconductor industry, and LFoundry is arguably one of the best examples of corporate adaptability in recent memory.

LFoundry’s manufacturing facility in Avezzano, Italy.

LFoundry GmbH (Landshut, Germany) was formed in 2008 as a management buyout when Renesas Electronics opted to close its wafer fab in Landshut, agreeing to use the German fab for a portion of its needs. However, the company’s founding coincided with the beginning of the economic downturn, and the Landshut fab was shuttered in 2011 when orders from Renesas declined, noted IC Insights analyst Rob Lineback.

Meanwhile, microcontroller vendor Atmel spun out its fab in Rousset, France, selling it to LFoundry with an agreement to use the French fab for a portion of Atmel’s MCU production requirements. The move to the Rousset fab tripled LFoundry’s capacity, Lineback said. But when Atmel’s orders to Rousset flagged, LFoundry decided to close that fab. The company then moved to a new production base in Italy, where Micron Technology sought to sell its 200mm fab in Avezzano. In 2008, Micron had converted the former Texas Instruments DRAM fab into a production facility for the CMOS image sensors (CIS) sold by Micron spinout Aptina Imaging.

The takeover of the Micron fab commenced in mid-2013 by a 50:50 joint venture between LFoundry Europe and Marsica Innovation SpA , now called Marsica Innovation Technology (MIT),* a corporate entity formed through a management buy-out.

Re-Inventing in Italy

The LFoundry Avezzano fab runs a 90nm process -- co-developed by Aptina and technologists at the LFoundry Avezzano facility – to produce Aptina’s image sensors. The jointly developed technology incorporates up to four metal layers, 193nm lithography, copper back end of line (Cu BEOL), cobalt salicide, and additional special modules.

LFoundry COO Riccardo Martorelli​

Riccardo Martorelli, LFoundry’s chief operating officer, said the Avezzano fab has a lower cost structure than Rousset, with double the capacity, at more than 40 thousand 200mm wafers per month. Avezzano is copper-capable, while Rousset was limited to an aluminum BEOL, he noted, adding that Avezzano is able to go to 70nm design rules while Rousset was limited to a 110nm process.

In Avezzano, Martorelli said Aptina Imaging and LFoundry have established “a strong strategic partnership” to manufacture CMOS image sensors. “Today, the majority of our load is certainly coming from Aptina, which is normal considering that Avezzano began operating as a foundry in May 2013. But in 2014, we are already starting our first production runs for our other target markets.”

The acquisition and transfer of some technologies from Micron provided LFoundry with a larger technology portfolio and competitive 200mm production capabilities, to which is added the German skills in R&D and sales and marketing support. The goal is “to deliver, from Europe, outstanding foundry services to a wider range of customers in all geographical regions,” he said.

Lineback, who authors the Optoelectronics, Sensors, and Discretes (O-S-D) report published by IC Insights, said CMOS image sensors increasingly are being combined with logic, customizing the devices for a variety of high-volume markets. Martorelli said the co-development efforts between LFoundry and Aptina allow end users to bring to market “differentiated products in a wide variety of imaging applications,” including smart phones, automobiles, tablets, televisions, gaming platforms, sports cameras, medical equipment, and digital cameras.

Over the past decade, the engineers at the Avezzano fab have been working as both a manufacturing and technology-development operation. That engineering know-how is key to developing a close foundry relationship with Aptina and other customers.

“Today’s image sensor technology requirements like back side illumination (BSI) are provided here, and next-generation requirements such as TSVs (through silicon vias) are under evaluation,” he said.

Martorelli said that while imagers will continue to play an important role for Avezzano, “a majority of our future load will be driven by markets other than imaging.” Targets include the secure microcontrollers used in SIM, banking, and ID cards; smart power products through internally differentiated PMOS and LDMOS technologies; customer ASICs -- designed to the LFoundry technology -- for markets including industrial, automotive and medical applications; and CMOS-integrated MEMS.

LFoundry Avezzano currently offers two flexible platforms, including RF, high- voltage, non-volatile memory (NVM) and optoelectronics modules. “This provides our customers with the ability to perform a high level of integration, including the option of integrating MEMS into the CMOS metal stack,” he added.

For the secure microcontroller market, Avezzano has a full ISO certification (ISO15408) supply-chain profile for specific markets, including back metal. For power ICs, thin wafer processing (<150nm) is supported.

Staying Flexible

“Over the past year we have set up an integrated organization in Avezzano to fully support LFoundry’s business model. We know that we need to diversify to have a stable set up as a foundry, and that requires being an attractive partner for a wider market, allowing us to be less sensitive to market fluctuations,” Martorelli said.

Now the COO, Martorelli began his career in 1995 as a process and equipment engineer at the then-Texas Instruments-owned Avezzano fab, becoming the fab manager in 2008.

“Suppliers such as Applied Materials can play a critical role on the path to competitiveness and success of sites like ours,” he said, noting that keeping costs under control while supporting a continuous technology evolution is key.

Darwin would agree.

*Marisca Innovation & Technology S.r.l. officially changed its name to LFoundry S.r.l. on April 1, 2014