Northrop Grumman eyes research into 3D integrated circuits chip packaging for artificial intelligence (AI)

June 15, 2023
NGMM will work to establish a domestic center for producing silicon and non-silicon 3D heterogeneously integrated (3DHI) circuit prototypes.

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio – U.S. military researchers needed a company to take the first steps in establishing a domestic center for research in advanced silicon and non-silicon 3D integrated circuits. They found their solution from Northrop Grumman Corp.

Officials of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, announced a $2.8 million contract last week to the Northrop Grumman Space Park facility in Redondo Beach, Calif., for the Next Generation Microelectronics Manufacturing (NGMM) program.

NGMM will work to establish a domestic center for producing silicon and non-silicon 3D heterogeneously integrated (3DHI) circuit prototypes by defining examples of 3DHI microsystems and identifying the equipment, process, and facility requirements for manufacturing 3DHI chip packaging.

The Air Force Research Lab awarded the NGMM contract on behalf of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va. Additional NGMM contracts may be awarded. A contract for actually establishing the 3DHI research center will come later.

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Microelectronics are essential to advanced computers, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems,robotics, communications and networking, and networked sensing, researchers say. Yet over the next decade traditional technology scaling alone will provide only diminishing cost and performance improvements and is unlikely to drive future long-term microelectronics innovation.

Instead, researchers must address the next wave of innovation in microelectronics that will overtake the role that silicon complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) transistor scaling.

The next major wave of microelectronics innovation should involve integrating heterogeneous materials, devices, and circuits to produce tightly coupled 3D microelectronics with performance that exceeds what is available from today’s monolithic approach, researchers say.

Microelectronics industry leaders today use 3D integration of modestly dissimilar silicon digital technologies for a narrow range of commercial products that range from stacked dynamic random access memory (DRAM) to CMOS imagers, to high-performance computing.

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However, the opportunity to benefit defense systems broadly relies on expanding the types of microelectronics that can be integrated and assembled. Today’s mature integration techniques -- even those often referred to as 3DHI -- focus primarily on low-power leading-edge CMOS, legacy CMOS, and silicon-based memory.

Advancing digital integration requires increasing interconnect densities well beyond today’s state-of-the-art, not only for silicon CMOS devices, but also for compound semiconductors for radio frequency (RF) and photonics for interconnect, novel memory devices for computing, and wide-bandgap and ultra-wide bandgap semiconductors for power electronics.

This project also seeks to improve thermal management, power conditioning, testing and electrical characterization for known good die, and design tools for modeling and simulation of these new microsystems.

The NGMM program seeks to address such as lack of centralized facilities to facilitate information sharing during development; lack of common standards; lack of access to affordable manufacturing capacity for low-volume products; very long iteration cycles at existing facilities; expensive fabrication equipment; and limitations of expensive and proprietary design tools.

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The U.S. today has no open-access manufacturing center for 3DHI research. In fact, most U.S. companies engaged in 3DHI research rely on foreign facilities for this kind of work.

Instead, establishing an open-access national manufacturing center for 3DHI research could promote an expansive wave of innovation, shared learning, and 3DHI research for low-volume products.

Military researchers are proposing to establish pilot-line manufacturing capability to test research designs without the need for expensive capability investments to bring about the next major wave of microelectronics innovation, which will come from integrating heterogeneous materials, devices, and circuits through advanced packaging.

On this project Northrop Grumman is expected to do the work in Redondo Beach, Calif. For more information contact Northrop Grumman Space Park online at, DARPA at, or the Air Force Research Laboratory at

About the Author

John Keller | Editor-in-Chief

John Keller is the Editor-in-Chief, Military & Aerospace Electronics Magazine--provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronics and optoelectronic technologies in military, space and commercial aviation applications. John has been a member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since 1989 and chief editor since 1995.

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