The interaction between two private business groups, one from Brazil and one from South Korea, with the support of the Vale do Rio dos Sinos University (Unisinos), in São Leopoldo, Rio Grande do Sul, and municipal, state and federal governments, has resulted in the establishment of one of the largest factories for encapsulation of memory chips for laptops and desktops in Latin America. Encapsulation consists of protecting the chip in an integrated circuit through adhesion and soldering to a substrate made of fiberglass and epoxy, a resin that also serves to cover the device.
The factory, inaugurated in June 2014, has the capacity to encapsulate up to 5 million of these devices per month, which represents approximately 20% of domestic demand. When operating at full capacity in 2019, the company will be able to process up to 30 million chips each month. HT Micron was established in December 2009 as a result of a partnership between the South Korean company Hana Micron, founded in 2001, and the Brazilian group Parit Participações em Inovação e Tecnologia, the parent company of Teikon, which manufactures electronic products, and Altus, in the field of industrial automation.
In January 2010, Unisinos, HT Micron and the city of São Leopoldo signed a letter of intent. “The goal was to allow the factory to be built in the Unisinos São Leopoldo Technology Park (Tecnosinos),” explains Juliana Suzin, the person in charge of market relations for the university’s technological institutes. “Among the obligations agreed to by the university was construction of a building to house the HT Micron factory.” The agreement provides for rental of the factory to the company for 10 years, with an option to purchase the facilities at the end of this term. HT qualified to take part in the federal government’s Semiconductor Industry Development Support Program (Padis), and thus enjoys various tax incentives, such as exemption from the Federal Value-Added Tax (IPI).
Under Padis, HT agreed to spend 3% to 5% of its annual income on research and development in Brazil through 2017, with 1% each year to be invested in Unisinos. To improve the university’s performance in this field, it created the Semiconductor Institute (ITT Chip). “The goal of ITT Chip is to establish a center of excellence for research, development, innovation and business support focused on the encapsulation and testing of semiconductors,” explains Professor Celso Peter, ITT Chip coordinator. “An investment of R$14 million will be made to set up the institute, most of it provided by the Brazilian Innovation Agency (Finep),” says Peter.
The center will be located on the Unisinos campus, next to Tecnosinos. “It will be an environment designed to promote the generation, transfer and application of the knowledge produced at the university and in the international scientific and technological field of electronic components,” adds Suzin. The university is already contributing to the training of professionals for the new company. Today, HT employs 400 workers in three shifts to produce computer memory components and it is preparing to manufacture devices for use in smartphones and tablets. At full production capacity, HT Micron projects that it will generate 800 direct jobs. Since its foundation, R$130 million has been invested. This figure is expected to reach R$200 million over the next five years. The investment made so far includes the R$54 million from Unisinos to build the 10,000 m2 facilities, which was 90% funded by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) with support from the Rio Grande do Sul State Development Bank (Badesul).
The factory has a total of 7,500 m2 of clean rooms. “In clean rooms, the air may not contain more than 5,000 particles of up to 0.5 micron per cubic foot,” explains Rosana Casais, HT Micron director of institutional relations. Production starts with wafers, in this case thin circular disks the size of a pizza, with a diameter of 30 cm and a thickness of 0.25 mm, each containing approximately two thousand 3.9 mm x 6.1 mm chips, produced by the company’s suppliers, such as HT’s South Korean partner SK Hynix. They are made of silicon and arrive complete with their integrated circuits, with about 2 billion transistors each. “The clean rooms in the São Leopoldo factory will prevent particles in the air from interfering with the soldering of the chips, performed using threads of gold with a diameter of 0.017 mm,” explains Casais.
The chips encapsulated by HT Micron are volatile memory chips, of the DRAM type (RAM computer memory), and non-volatile, NAND flash memories, used in the manufacture of solid-state drives (SSD) and pen drives. The company sells a lot of its output to another company in the group, Teikon, controlled by Parit, which assembles DRAM memory modules and sells them to computer assemblers in Brazil, such as Dell and Positivo.
According to Professor Jacobus Willibrordus Swart, of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and coordinator of the National Institute of Science and Technology for Materials in Nanotechnology (INCT/NAMITEC), given the widespread use of chips in a large and growing number of applications, it is increasingly important to participate in the design and production process of these devices. “Encapsulation is an important part of the process and allows us to add value to the product domestically, generating dividends and training human resources,” he says.
Professor Antônio Carlos Seabra, head of the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering of the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP), agrees. “Encapsulation is very important in the value chain of a chip today,” he says. “In some cases it is the most expensive part of the process. When tests are added, it supplants the cost of manufacturing the chip in many applications. Brazil is already designing integrated circuits, and is now consolidating its knowledge in encapsulation.” Seabra also welcomes university-company interactions, like that upon which HT Micron was founded. “The association of universities and businesses is always positive,” he says. “Note that we are talking about a leading-edge, high value-added industry that employs ultra-modern means of production,” says Seabra.