Sandia LabNews

MDL team delivers first in-house fabricated 'mark quality' ICs

Foresight by the designers — and funders — of Sandia’s Microelectronics Development Lab (MDL) in 1988 paid off handsomely in 1999. More than a decade after the facility scrubbed the air in its 13,000 square feet of clean room space for the first time, Sandia has delivered 114 in-house-manufactured microelectronic components for W76-2F redesign Joint Test Assemblies (JTAs). The delivery of the in-house-produced "mark quality" components — a first for the MDL — convincingly validates the original MDL plan that called for it to be able to serve as a backup production facility for vital weapon components.

The MDL production capability existed only as an idea until a 1997 US Senate report highlighted the fact that 13 of 15 commercial suppliers of strategically radiation-hardened (rad hard) integrated circuits (ICs) had left the industry since the end of the Cold War. Further, the Senate found that the turnaround time for new ICs had increased to as much as three years. The Senate directed DOE to develop a program to maintain a limited in-house production capacity to build strategically rad-hard ICs, and build them on a much tighter timeframe. DOE turned to Sandia and its MDL — designed from the outset for just such a contingency — to demonstrate the capability required by the Senate directive.

Other production at Sandia

Not that production capability is new to Sandia. During the Cold War, Sandia delivered thousands of radiation-hardened integrated circuits for a variety of weapons and satellites. However, these IC’s were fabricated in an older facility.

As part of a post-Cold War realignment of the US nuclear weapon complex, neutron generator production was moved from the Pinellas facility in Florida to Sandia. Sandia, which has long had a hand in neutron generator design, is now proving itself — naysayers and skeptics notwithstanding — to be a viable production resource for the critical weapon component.

Similarly, with the end of the Cold War and the reduction in the size of the potential market for rad-hard ICs, traditional industry sources for application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) required for the stockpile and stockpile test articles began to dry up. This was understandable from a purely commercial viewpoint, but intolerable from a national security perspective. Enter MDL.

The requirement for the new ASICs was driven by a need to have smaller, more innocuous or transparent instrumentation in weapon test assemblies. The smaller the instrumentation, the less mass and space it takes up, the more like an actual weapon a test article can be.

Specifically, MDL was charged not just with the design, but with the fabrication of 57 "interpolating time-interval counters" and 57 "signal timing analyzers and generators." The R and D side of the requirement was nothing new — MDL had been designing mark-quality microelectronics of the very highest sophistication for years. Those designs, though, had always been produced elsewhere.

Breaking new ground

Meeting the manufacturing requirement in-house would mean breaking new ground for the MDL. DOE requires weapon-related components to be tested and manufactured in strict accordance with standardized quality guidelines. In DOE parlance, the processes must be "QC-1-compliant," that is, performed in accordance with "DOE/AL Quality Criteria, QC-1."

Before MDL could enter into the fabrication business, then, it had to implement a QC-1-based quality management system. It also created the MDL Product Delivery Team, a group based largely in Microelectronics Center 1700, but drawing on specific expertise from a number of organizations across the Labs.

"We were forging new ground here," says project engineer Tim Mirabal. Far from intimidating team members, though, the prospect of taking on a new challenge spurred them to new levels of achievement.

"We spent less than nine months from customer request to prototype," says Tim, "and another nine months to the delivery of mark-quality parts." Compare that to the 36-month turnaround time that had become the norm in industry for these kinds of parts. And the MDL team did the work for less money than it would have cost to go outside. A cost savings of about 34 percent was realized. The project was successful enough to earn not one but two Sandia President’s Quality Awards this year, a silver for the development of the quality management system itself and a turquoise for the work leading to the actual delivery of the mark-quality integrated circuits.

A viable backup

Although MDL isn’t about to become a primary manufacturing center (in the way that Sandia’s neutron generator facility is), it has proven itself to be a viable backup source of mark-quality weapon components. And it will keep its hand in the fabrication business.

The MDL product delivery team is building mark-quality ICs for the PAL (permissive action link) system simulator and for other weapon-related electronics. And strong on the heels of its first mark-quality product delivery, the MDL team is keeping busy. Here’s some of what’s going on:

  • Installation of a new tool set in the wafer fabrication facility, keeping the facility at the leading edge for producing next-generation microcircuits.
  • Design of the rad-hard Pentium (r).
  • Design, building, packaging, and testing of new MEMS (microelectromechanical systems).
  • Designing, building, packaging, testing, and delivering two new types mark-quality ASICs.