Facing the Threat of a Potential FPGA Shortage: A Call to Action

 In Defense, Air, Space

by MARTIN HART

Consider this simple ques­tion. Can the defense and space indus­tries count on a con­tin­ued stable supply of mis­sion-crit­i­cal Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) com­po­nents 10, 20, or even 30 years from now? Recent global events remind us that fail­ing to ade­quate­ly pre­pare for a cat­a­stro­phe can lead to unin­tend­ed con­se­quences in domino-like suc­ces­sion. Some see the wisdom in seek­ing shel­ter before a tor­na­do strikes, while others may argue that allow­ing events to play out is the pre­ferred course of action. Planning for an even­tu­al poten­tial short­age of a crit­i­cal mil­i­tary com­po­nent may not be tops on everyone’s pri­or­i­ty list. If an elec­tron­ic guid­ance system for a warfight­er is miss­ing one crit­i­cal part, that plane or mis­sile will not fly. Let’s view the whole par­a­digm from a dis­tance to see what’s miss­ing, such as in the case of FPGA devices.

An FPGA is an inte­grat­ed cir­cuit (IC) con­fig­urable by cus­tomers in the field, and this par­tic­u­lar capa­bil­i­ty makes them well suited to aero­space and defense appli­ca­tions. A for­ti­fied ver­sion, known as a Radiation Hardened (RadHard) FPGA, for exam­ple, can with­stand attacks from elec­tro­mag­net­ic and par­ti­cle radi­a­tion in outer space. Defense and space grade FPGA devices often require solder columns, rather than solder balls, to attach the body of the IC pack­age to a print­ed cir­cuit board (PCB) assem­bly. These columns are a crit­i­cal sub­com­po­nent in the final assem­bly of the FPGA.

A sudden short­age of mis­sion-crit­i­cal FPGA devices could result in warfight­ers not flying and rock­ets not launch­ing. This is not an exag­ger­a­tion. Makers of ruggedi­zed FPGA devices cur­rent­ly depend on a single sub­con­trac­tor to attach these essen­tial copper-wrapped solder columns to the body of the FPGA. Not anyone can per­form solder column attach­ment, for rea­sons that we will explain.

Multiple Vendors vs. Sole Source for Column Attachment

Past pro­duc­tion short­ages in the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try have been short-lived because mul­ti­ple ven­dors have been able to quick­ly step in to fill voids in the supply chain. Today, only a single sub­con­trac­tor is des­ig­nat­ed on the Qualified Manufacturer List (QML-38535) as a provider of copper-wrapped solder column attach­ment ser­vices for the entire FPGA indus­try. Any supply chain depen­dent on a single sup­pli­er is inher­ent­ly vul­ner­a­ble. Action is needed to resolve this vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty.

Any number of unfor­tu­nate causes, from nat­ur­al dis­as­ters to inter­nal busi­ness prob­lems, could inter­rupt busi­ness con­tin­u­a­tion for this cur­rent monop­oly sup­pli­er.

An exis­ten­tial threat could arise if a hos­tile for­eign actor acquired or oth­er­wise took con­trol and, for exam­ple, relo­cat­ed pro­duc­tion off­shore. A facil­i­ty relo­ca­tion typ­i­cal­ly results in the loss of QML status, pend­ing requal­i­fi­ca­tion. It can take up to 24 months for a new can­di­date to under­go the ardu­ous approval process before attain­ing QML status to pro­vide the afore­men­tioned ser­vices. A pro­longed pro­duc­tion shut­down of FPGA devices direct­ly impacts US nation­al secu­ri­ty, affect­ing thou­sands of down­stream cus­tomers who would be unable to com­plete sys­tems and black box builds. Proactive steps taken now to iden­ti­fy and mon­i­tor the risks could mit­i­gate such a threat.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) pro­vides guide­lines to help the indus­try iden­ti­fy and mit­i­gate depen­den­cy on ser­vices from single-source sub­con­trac­tors. The Defense Standardization Program Office pub­lish­es a help­ful doc­u­ment, SD-22, titled, “Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages (DMSMS), a Guidebook of Best Practices for Implementing a Robust DMSMS Management Program.” It is a useful resource to aid FPGA device makers seek­ing to broad­en their sup­pli­er base for com­po­nents crit­i­cal to nation­al secu­ri­ty.

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment deliv­ers an annual report to Congress titled “Industrial Capabilities” stat­ing the mis­sion of the Office of Industrial Policy (INDPOL), to ensure a robust, secure, resilient, and inno­v­a­tive indus­tri­al capa­bil­i­ties upon which the DoD can rely. Eight com­pa­nies making the major­i­ty of the world’s FPGA devices may con­sid­er issu­ing for­ward-look­ing cau­tion­ary state­ments to stake­hold­ers, citing their reliance on a single QML vendor to attach copper-wrapped columns. These state­ments dis­close poten­tial risks from the per­spec­tive of management’s rea­son­ing or beliefs.

No Simple Matter

Fabrication of copper-wrapped solder columns is not simple and requires sophis­ti­cat­ed knowl­edge, spe­cial­ized man­u­fac­tur­ing equip­ment, and pro­fi­cient oper­a­tor skills to prop­er­ly attach the columns. They are nei­ther read­i­ly nor com­mon­ly avail­able.

The risk of an FPGA pro­duc­tion shut­down is pre­ventable by taking pru­dent action now. The most direct solu­tion is to qual­i­fy mul­ti­ple ven­dors for crit­i­cal process­es includ­ing column attach­ment. This remedy would require a rel­a­tive­ly low invest­ment by FPGA device makers.

Consequences of a Production Stoppage

A pro­duc­tion stop­page of crit­i­cal FPGA devices could result in the fail­ure of the defense indus­try to ful­fill com­mit­ments for the deliv­ery of warfight­ers and other crit­i­cal sys­tems. Failure to deliv­er RadHard FPGA pack­ages could poten­tial­ly dis­rupt mis­sion sched­ules.

A dimin­ish­ing domes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing base and a frag­ile market are con­tribut­ing risk fac­tors for achiev­ing robust and resilient pro­duc­tion of FPGA devices. FPGA pack­ages with solder columns are pro­duced in a low-volume man­u­fac­tur­ing envi­ron­ment; for exam­ple, approx­i­mate­ly 75,000 indi­vid­ual FPGA devices spread over 100 dif­fer­ent out­line pack­ages are pro­duced annu­al­ly.

Total annual vol­umes of FPGA and ASIC devices, with as much as 70 mil­lion copper-wrapped solder columns, are minus­cule com­pared to vol­umes of com­mer­cial off-the-shelf (COTS) FPGA devices con­sum­ing bil­lions of solder balls that dom­i­nate the COTS market. But attach­ing solder columns to FPGA pack­ages is a sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent process.

Solder Columns

Solder columns are cylin­dri­cal­ly shaped pins that must be held ver­ti­cal­ly in place by pre­ci­sion fix­tures with­out slant­i­ng or falling over during the attach­ment and solder reflow process. A final assem­bly step requires the entire matrix array of up to 1,752 columns to be pla­narized with­out dam­ag­ing a single column. No man­u­fac­tur­ing defects are allowed. Talented oper­a­tor skills must be employed during every step in the process of attach­ing columns to FPGA pack­ages. It is fun­da­men­tal­ly a nonau­to­mat­ed, arti­san process.

Fortunately, roy­al­ty-free, US-man­u­fac­tured copper wrapped solder columns are read­i­ly avail­able today in the supply chain. But start­ing from scratch, it could take 24 months for mul­ti­ple sub­con­trac­tors to under­go the ardu­ous process of attain­ing QML status to pro­vide column attach­ment ser­vices.

Companies that pro­duce FPGA devices are not required to vol­un­tar­i­ly qual­i­fy mul­ti­ple sub­con­trac­tors to per­form solder column attach­ment ser­vices. A lack of fund­ing by FPGA man­u­fac­tur­ing is most often cited as the pri­ma­ry reason for not qual­i­fy­ing a second source. Multiple micro­elec­tron­ic sub­con­trac­tors in the US supply chain are ready, will­ing, and able to pro­vide these ser­vices, pro­vid­ed that fund­ing is avail­able to pay for the cost of QML qual­i­fi­ca­tion. An accel­er­at­ed ini­tia­tive by FPGA makers to mit­i­gate risk and qual­i­fy mul­ti­ple sub­con­trac­tors requires a siz­able invest­ment. FPGA makers must take the lead in ini­ti­at­ing the qual­i­fi­ca­tion of alter­na­tive sub­con­trac­tors. As a prac­ti­cal matter, sub­con­trac­tors cannot inde­pen­dent­ly apply for QML status with­out the sup­port of the FPGA maker.

The Department of Defense pub­lished an unclas­si­fied report titled, “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States,” in ful­fill­ment of Executive Order (EO) 13806, which describes risks that threat­en America’s man­u­fac­tur­ing and defense indus­tri­al base. The 10 “risk arche­types” described in the report are as fol­lows: 1) sole source; 2) single source; 3) frag­ile sup­pli­er; 4) frag­ile market; 5) capac­i­ty con­strained supply market; 6) for­eign depen­den­cy; 7) dimin­ish­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing sources and mate­r­i­al short­ages (DMSMS); 8) gap in the US-based human cap­i­tal; 9) ero­sion of US-based infra­struc­ture; and 10) prod­uct secu­ri­ty.

Most of the risks described in the report apply to FPGA man­u­fac­tur­ing. Risk arche­types lead to a vari­ety of impacts on America’s indus­tri­al base. These include reduced invest­ment in new cap­i­tal and R&D; reduc­tions in the rates of mod­ern­iza­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion; poten­tial bot­tle­necks across the many tiers of the supply chain; and lower qual­i­ty and higher prices result­ing from reduced com­pe­ti­tion.

Sole Source vs. Single Source – A Dangerous Distinction

A sole source risk exists when only one sup­pli­er can pro­vide the required capa­bil­i­ty. A single source exists when only one sup­pli­er is qual­i­fied to pro­vide the required capa­bil­i­ty. EO 13806 draws a key dis­tinc­tion between the sole source and single source. Multiple sup­pli­ers may exist, but only a single source for copper wrapped solder columns is cur­rent­ly qual­i­fied, accord­ing to the Qualified Manufacturing List (QML-38535) pub­lished by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

Fortunately, man­u­fac­tur­ing capa­bil­i­ty for pro­duc­ing copper wrapped solder columns exists today in the US. Also, mul­ti­ple sub­con­trac­tors capa­ble of pro­vid­ing column attach­ment ser­vices for FPGA pack­ages cur­rent­ly exist in America.

Companies that pro­duce FPGA devices are not required to vol­un­tar­i­ly qual­i­fy mul­ti­ple sub­con­trac­tors. As men­tioned ear­li­er, it could take 24 months for an alter­na­tive can­di­date start­ing from scratch to attain QML status should a single source sup­pli­er unex­pect­ed­ly shut down.

Other risks

A frag­ile sup­pli­er is an indi­vid­ual firm that is finan­cial­ly chal­lenged or dis­tressed, and this poten­tial­ly includes most sub­con­trac­tors in the US micro­elec­tron­ics indus­try today. A frag­ile market occurs when domes­tic mar­kets have struc­tural­ly chal­leng­ing eco­nom­ics and face the poten­tial to move toward for­eign depen­den­cy.

Presently, a capac­i­ty-con­strained supply market may not be thought of as prob­lem­at­ic. However, a single source sup­pli­er may not be able to keep up with a sudden surge in market demand. Foreign depen­den­cy on wafer foundries could become an ele­vat­ed risk, espe­cial­ly when a domes­tic foundry does not pro­duce a crit­i­cal item.

The Human Element

Gaps in US-based human cap­i­tal are an ongo­ing con­cern. The indus­try needs to keep fresh sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy engi­neer­ing, and math (STEM) talent in the pipeline, espe­cial­ly within the micro­elec­tron­ics assem­bly base. Erosion of US-based infra­struc­ture, includ­ing the loss of spe­cial­ized cap­i­tal equip­ment, is a risk since attach­ment of solder columns to FPGA pack­ages requires pre­ci­sion tools and fix­tures that are dif­fi­cult to fab­ri­cate. Last, prod­uct secu­ri­ty could be of height­ened con­cern under cir­cum­stances where FPGA pack­ages require an assem­bly step over­seas, open­ing the risk of reverse engi­neer­ing or embed­ding tro­jans by for­eign ele­ments.

FPGA devices used in defense and aero­space appli­ca­tions must be pro­duced by sup­pli­ers on the QML. Six-Sigma, based in Milpitas, CA, is already QML- 38535-approved for attach­ing copper wrapped columns. Multiple con­trac­tors are at var­i­ous stages of tool­ing up, await­ing DLA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. VPT Components and Micross Components have also demon­strat­ed the capa­bil­i­ty to per­form these ser­vices, and other sup­pli­ers plan to offer them. By the end of 2021, five con­trac­tors will prob­a­bly be qual­i­fied to attach columns.

Recently, the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has intro­duced risks not pre­vi­ous­ly con­sid­ered that could threat­en America’s dom­i­nance in warfight­er tech­nol­o­gy. An early casu­al­ty of Covid-19 was an advi­so­ry to halt travel to con­duct QML-38535 audits by DLA employ­ees. DLA audits that were sched­uled in March 2020 were abrupt­ly can­celed. This unex­pect­ed event blocks new sup­pli­ers from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the QML market. The stop­page of DLA field audits means an inde­ter­mi­nate delay in qual­i­fy­ing addi­tion­al sup­pli­ers to make QML FPGA devices. DLA cites no date when field audits will resume. Would DLA con­sid­er con­duct­ing vir­tu­al QML audits using video plat­forms to sup­port the supply chain?

As men­tioned ear­li­er, copper-wrapped column attach­ment ser­vices are cur­rent­ly dom­i­nat­ed by a single-source monop­oly. The intro­duc­tion of fresh com­pe­ti­tion to per­form these ser­vices might be expect­ed to pro­mote com­pet­i­tive pric­ing and speed deliv­er­ies. Multiple ven­dors increase the like­li­hood that a strong, resilient indus­tri­al base and supply chain will result. Original device makers (ODM) have noted that FPGA and ASIC pack­ages have been sus­pend­ed in finan­cial limbo for more than a year, while prod­ucts remain in a state of work-in-process (WiP) before gen­er­at­ing cash flow.

Many man­u­fac­tur­ing steps are required to pro­duce ceram­ic FPGA devices. In the first stage, it takes a min­i­mum of six months to pro­cure and pro­duce land grid array (LGA) pack­ages, con­sist­ing of ceram­ic hous­ings, along with nec­es­sary die bond­ing and lid seal­ing. Then, it takes a report­ed addi­tion­al six months for the cur­rent monop­oly sup­pli­er to attach solder columns to con­vert the LGA pack­age into a column grid array (CGA or CCGA). Finally, it takes months to per­form final test­ing before the cus­tomer receives the deliv­ery. This lengthy pro­duc­tion cycle can be sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced by having mul­ti­ple capa­ble ven­dors because they col­lec­tive­ly can per­form column attach­ment ser­vices in weeks rather than many months.

New Markets Emerging

Emerging mar­kets for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and 5G uti­lize super-sized organ­ic pack­ages, com­po­nents too large for reli­able BGA pack­ag­ing. Alternative inter­con­nects are needed to ensure reli­a­bil­i­ty. This is a bur­geon­ing market sector where­in a new type of solder column uti­liz­ing copper braid or copper cores, rather than copper wrap­ping, has the poten­tial to dis­si­pate more heat while offer­ing com­pli­ance to extreme­ly large AI and 5G base sta­tion pack­ages.

It’s time for advo­ca­cy stake­hold­ers to ini­ti­ate a shared vision to ensure a robust, resilient, and sus­tain­able supply chain for FPGA devices. Domestic man­u­fac­tur­ing of copper wrapped solder columns is already avail­able. The next step is to qual­i­fy mul­ti­ple micro­elec­tron­ic sub­con­trac­tors ready and will­ing to pro­vide this process. A pru­dent invest­ment today can mit­i­gate the risk of wait­ing for an unex­pect­ed dis­as­ter to strike, poten­tial­ly cost­ing the defense indus­try hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. A pro­duc­tion stop­page of crit­i­cal FPGA com­po­nents could ulti­mate­ly dimin­ish market readi­ness. By the end of 2021, it is antic­i­pat­ed that sev­er­al sub­con­trac­tors will offer column attach­ment ser­vices to the indus­try, once DLA can resume audit­ing and cer­ti­fy­ing new QML sup­pli­ers of these ser­vices. Greater US gov­ern­ment sup­port to help fund pro­grams to strength­en this crit­i­cal area will result in enhanced readi­ness, greater secu­ri­ty of supply, and fewer pro­gram delays.

Conclusion

The speed with which the cur­rent brit­tle market can be for­ti­fied depends on judi­cious access to fund­ing, which will drive the next steps in the roadmap. Step one is the US Department of Defense fund­ing an indus­try effort to strength­en the supply chain. Step two requires the engage­ment of sub­ject matter experts (SME) with inti­mate knowl­edge of com­po­nents used in the defense indus­try to vet pro­pos­als from the supply chain. If nei­ther step is ini­ti­at­ed, then step three should be ini­ti­at­ed, i.e., the eight dom­i­nat­ing ODM pro­duc­ers of FPGA com­po­nents should allo­cate rea­son­able fund­ing to aggres­sive­ly encour­age mul­ti­ple sub­con­trac­tors to qual­i­fy solder column attach­ment ser­vices in prepa­ra­tion for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by DLA. If none of those steps occurs, then we have step four, in which inde­pen­dent sub­con­trac­tors in the supply chain deploy their sources of fund­ing to devel­op process­es to attach solder columns to pre­pare for DLA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Step five fol­lows, a proac­tive dis­cus­sion with stake­hold­ers, includ­ing the DoD, SMEs, FPGA makers, and down­stream cus­tomers to gain momen­tum for devel­op­ing a resilient, robust supply chain for column attach­ment ser­vices. This course of action is much more desir­able than wait­ing for calami­ty to strike. The imper­a­tive is a Call to Action to pro­vide the defense and space indus­tries with an unin­ter­rupt­ed supply of mis­sion-crit­i­cal Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) com­po­nents 10, 20, and even 30 years from now.

REFERENCES

  1. Topline Corporation., New Copper Braided Solder Columns for FPGA and Large Ceramic Modules, Jan. 1, 2020; www.topline.tv/pdf files/Braided_ Column_Introduction.pdf.

MARTIN HART is the chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of TopLine Corp. (topline.tv) and holds sev­er­al US patents relat­ed to CCGA assem­bly and vibra­tion damp­ing; hart@ topline.tv.

Source: COTS Journal

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