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India’s first semiconductor manufacturing unit comes in

Nearly 35 years after a mysterious fire destroyed facilities at its 51-acre campus in Mohali in Punjab, Semi-Conductor Laboratory (SCL) is fighting back to extinguish old memories and earn a place in the sun. That’s thanks to a generous modernization plan worth Rs 10,000 crore put in place by the Ministry of Electronics and IT (Meity), which wants India’s original semiconductor manufacturing unit to not only continue operations at the 180 nanometer (nm) technology factory , but also upgrades to 28 nm.

It’s ironic that SCL first started production in 1984, three years before Taiwan’s Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which eventually became a global chip leader, established itself. But fire and slow decision-making, typical of a state-owned company, held SCL back as it took almost a decade to resume operations in 1995.

Manoj Wadhwa, group head at VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) and MEMS (Micro Electromechanical System) manufacturing group, said the entire team has gone to AMS, Austria for two years. “We were at 2 microns at the time. There we developed 1.2 micron, which we ported in 1995,” he adds.

That all seems like a distant memory now. When US-based Micron rolls out the first chip from its Assembly, Testing, Marking and Packaging (ATMP) facility in Sanand, Gujaratpart of the credit goes to SCL, which has not only provided first-level training for the professionals working on Micron’s project, but is also in the process of doing the same for other similar projects in the pipeline.

SCL has two production lines – for 6-inch and 8-inch wafers – an ATMP unit and a compound semiconductor unit. SCL is looking for land near the existing factory to build the new factory. “The government has a clear vision to modernize SCL that will be at par with global standards,” said Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister of Communications and IT. “We want SCL to support startups and industry for R&D and prototyping, and to increase capacity and strength for chip exports,” Vaishnaw added.

To date, SCL serves strategic sectors such as space and satellites, railways and telecom, including by supplying them with 180 nm chips. Once it starts producing 28nm technologyThe goal is to increase capacity to 24,000 waffles per month. Currently 700 wafers are deployed per month – 180 nm. Wafer acts as the basis for making chips. Chip production starts with wafer preparation.

“We will have an improved technology that will help SCL diversify beyond 180nm and for that we are looking at proposals from semiconductor companies that will help us modernize the organization,” Vaishnaw said.

Kamaljeet Singh, director general at SCL, shares the minister’s optimism. “No other company in the world can boast of so many technologies in one place,” says Singh, sitting in his office on the sprawling SCL campus. “It’s very rare to find factories that can open up to academia, startups, that can give you this kind of accessibility and where you can do not just research but also limited volume production,” says Singh.

In the declining market for 180nm chips, Singh explains that 180nm meets many requirements in crucial sectors such as the strategic sector and the automotive industry. “This technology hub delivers reliable devices with better returns. SCL has successfully developed expertise in porting processes from 1.2 microns to 180 nm,” he said, highlighting that Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Indian RailwaysGSI Germany and CG Power are among others its most important customers.

For the 180 nm technology, SCL has Israel-based Tower Semiconductor as its technology partner. On the SCL campus, a team from Tower also handles maintenance work for the 8-inch fab line. One of SCL’s recent successes is the Chandrayaan-3 mission, for which it fabricated the Vikram Processor (1601 PE01) that assisted in launch vehicle navigation and camera configurator for the Vikram lander imager camera. The organization currently makes charge-coupled devices (CCDs) and image sensors for ISRO.

“We have received clarity from the government that we are moving towards a 12 inch wafer fab with a 28 nm technology node with low volume production. We will also support industrial R&D needs,” said Sudhir Thakur, group head, Project Planning Group at SCL. The modernization and upgrade would require expanding the existing production facility, which means replacing the decades-old equipment; finding a technology partner for 28nm factories, and sourcing crucial raw materials for manufacturing locally to reduce import costs and improve returns for customers. Currently, limited factory capacity is also one of the reasons that prevents SCL from fulfilling large orders.

For the modernization of SCL, “we are looking for companies that want to install, run and then transfer the factory to us. These companies will need to clearly specify their technology partners. Whatever support people need, we will provide them,” said Thakur.

Obtaining the 28nm technology or any other technology for semiconductors is not an easy task as global companies are reluctant to share their technologies, industry experts say. For example, Wadhwa says, “Very few factories have 28nm technology and most are unwilling to share it. Tata Group is very lucky to get it from PSMC”.

However, there is a glimmer of hope as officials say IBM and IMEC Belgium have expressed interest in collaborating in developing the 28nm technology for R&D purposes. The process to finalize the technology partner is ongoing. Melissa

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