NSA seeking new business for in-house CMOS wafer fab

FORT MEADE, Md. - Leaders of the secretive National Security Agency (NSA) have quietly been going public with their in-house microelectronics facility at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md.

Dec 1st, 1998

By John Rhea

FORT MEADE, Md. - Leaders of the secretive National Security Agency (NSA) have quietly been going public with their in-house microelectronics facility at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md.

NSA officials, whose organization has long been shrouded in secrecy and referred to by some as "no such agency," hope to round up more customers for what they call the "fast-turnaround, low- volume niche business."

Operating the $200 million-plus NSA facility since 1990 has been National Semiconductor Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif. The NSA fab includes a 20,000-square-foot class-10 cleanroom for fabrication and a 4,800-square-foot class 1000 packaging center.

The original idea was to service NSA`s own needs in the intelligence arena, particularly for old components that executives of commercial semiconductor firms are either unable or unwilling to produce.

Now the facility is ramping up to service the needs of other federal agencies and programs, and is offering a complete one-stop shopping center for design, fabrication, assembly, and test. This is according to a sales pitch presented by Leland Miller, NSA`s marketing director for microelectronics, at the October Association of Old Crows (AOC) conference in Virginia Beach, Va. Continued on page 6

The manufacturing process is bulk CMOS, using 6-inch wafers, to fabricate feature sizes of 1, 0.8, and 0.5 microns in either two or three metal layers. This is due to be upgraded to 0.22 micron, six-level metal technology by July 2000. Typical production amounts to 1,000 wafer starts a month, Miller says.

Yields are comparable to the industry average, he adds - around 15 percent for large die and 80 to 90 percent for small die. Output has risen sharply from 350,000 to 450,000 die over the past year, Miller notes. It was about 3,000 die when the facility began at the 1-micron level. About 150 product designs are in the fabrication process simultaneously.

The NSA facility has concentrated on the agency`s own needs, particularly on old 1-micron products, but has serviced other government customers.

Other government customers include the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena Calif., whose officials have ordered radiation-hardened devices; the Department of Energy`s Sandia Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M.; the U.S. Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego; and other customers whom Miller will identify only as "the intelligence community."

NSA has exhibited at specialized technical conferences since 1993, Miller says, but last year broadened its effort with exhibits at the AOC conference and again this year at both AOC and the Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association. The NSA exhibit drew particularly heavy booth traffic at the Virginia Beach meeting.

In addition to fabrication and packaging of programmable gate arrays in plastic multichip modules, flipchips, and ball grid arrays, the facility also can do custom designs of application-specific integrated circuits using any starting point from block diagrams to finished layouts.

Typical delivery times are 12 weeks from submission of a database tape, but special orders can be handled in three weeks. Functional and parametric tests are conducted using standard commercial test equipment.

A microelectronics research laboratory at the NSA facility, meanwhile, is working on gallium arsenide and emitter coupled logic technologies, and low power (1 to 3.3 volt) devices using silicon on insulator and 0.25 to 0.65 micron geometries.

Additional information about NSA`s microelectronics services is available by phone at 301-688-0350 and by fax at 301-688-0774.

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