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First Power ‘ChiP’ Fab Supports Automotive Electrification and Data Centers

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Power supplies are instrumental for the success of applications in which high efficiency, reliability, and performance are mandatory requirements. This includes the most recent applications in the automotive sector, where the progressive electrification of the vehicle fleet imposes unprecedented challenges to increase range and reduce charging time, as well as the size and weight of the power delivery network. Data centers, where an enormous amount of data is stored and processed (also thanks to the aid of artificial–intelligence algorithms), require ultra–efficient power solutions capable of operating 24/7 while minimizing power consumption and taking up less space and weight.

Vicor Corporation, the industry leader in innovative power–module design and manufacturing, has recently celebrated the opening of a new 90,000–square–foot, state–of–the–art manufacturing facility in Andover, Massachusetts. The power–module–manufacturing facility, created to support the demand coming from the fast–growing automotive electrification and data center/AI industries, is the world’s first converter–housed–in–package (CHiP) fabrication facility. The new ChiP fab sets the standard for scalable, high–volume, cost–effective, and reliable power–module manufacturing in the United States.

Vicor ChiP fab

“This new ChiP fab is vertically integrated, meaning that we have developed a proprietary technology and we brought that under one roof rather than having it outsourced,” said Tom Curatolo, director of applications engineering at Vicor. “We think this makes us much more efficient in order to meet our current and growing data-center demands and the huge automotive demands that will be starting to ramp up in the near future.”

The new fab, shown in Figure 1, is designed specifically to build some of the new products that Vicor is bringing to market. For example, Vicor’s proprietary Vertical Power Delivery solutions require higher–volume production of their SM–ChiP parts such as the modular current multiplier (MCM) and MCM driver devices, as well as new products supporting ball–grid–array (solder sphere attach) requirements that aerospace and satellite communications customers need.

Figure 1: New Vicor ChiP manufacturing facility (Source: Vicor)

“We’ve always done quite a large amount of our business with the aerospace and defense segment, and this has continued into our new advanced products,” Curatolo said. “This is a key aspect for our manufacturing, because if you’re dealing with aerospace and defense as well as satellite–type applications, reliability is critical.”

These products include the DCM DC/DC converter, which regulates and transforms, as well as chipsets consisting of PRM regulator and VTM current multiplier modules that can also be molded and rugged for withstanding environmental conditions.

In addition, the facility and the manufacturing process used inside have been carefully focused on environmental sustainability by using environmentally friendly, clean manufacturing processes that far exceed the sustainability benchmarks of competing production facilities.

Working closely with local, state, and federal environmental agencies, the operation has been designed for zero wastewater and air discharge. Wastewater will be recycled into ultra–pure deionized water that will be reused in normal operation. Vicor has adopted a multi–phase approach to filtering the water to ensure the highest quality. The initial phase induces dissolved substances to solidify so that they can be easily filtered out. Further filtering removes organic particles and residual chemicals through a variety of mechanical filtering and chemical processes.

It has been estimated that this new sustainable wastewater process will save up to 20 million gallons of water each year, which is an outstanding achievement. Moreover, the solid contaminants filtered out as part of the process are collected and recycled when possible. This multi–stage process was built on industry best practices and further refined to achieve high levels of purity.

ChiP production process analogous to semiconductor approach

The new, vertically integrated ChiP fab employs a proprietary production technique that is analogous to that used by semiconductor wafer fabs. This patented process sets Vicor apart from its competitors by enabling the production of the most power–dense products in the market, but also enables better quality, reliability, and scalability.

The process (see Figure 2) starts with a bare panel analogous to a silicon wafer on which several instances of high–performance modules can be mounted and soldered by using state–of–the–art pick–and–place machines. These modules include PRM, DCM, VTM, BCM, and more. Different components can be made from these panels, and they can be mixed, matched, and singulated. Or they can be arranged together as an array. Therefore, this fabrication method is highly flexible and provides a high yield (up to 420,000 components per hour).

Once the SMT components are placed on the panel, it gets over–molded to create a reliable and thermally adept package. Then the assembly is plated, creating the interconnections as well as the thermal interface for the package. Finally, the power modules are separated from each other through a process called “singulation.” The end product is then submitted to the required acceptance and qualification tests (including total dose radiation for the parts that will go into a satellite application), ensuring it is compliant to the datasheet specifications and to the applicable standards.

“The concept is similar to the semiconductor wafer, with the difference that it’s not a semiconductor wafer but a panel,” Curatolo said. “It’s a proprietary PC board with multiple layers, manufactured as one unit, then singulated.”

A major benefit of this solution is that it’s an easy and repeatable manufacturing process and it involves a lot less waste. If you had to manufacture each of these parts individually, you would end up with much more waste. It is also more cost–effective and ensures better quality. According to Vicor, smaller modules not only have higher power density, but they also become less expensive to manufacture — similar to the semiconductor industry, both performance and cost can be improved at the same time.

“This panel concept is a major jump in how we can produce things and manufacture things quickly,” Curatolo said. “That’s really important in today’s environment, where you have to face supply-chain issues and you’re under a lot of pressure to get these modules built and out the door immediately.”

Preparing for new, high–growth automotive and data center markets

Today, markets are increasingly demanding more power–dense devices. This is true for the automotive industry, where electric vehicles require power solutions that are efficient, small, and light, as weight is critical. The need is similar in satellites: Because there is not much available space for the parts, each one needs to be small.

Besides automotive and aerospace and defense, data center is another key industry for Vicor. “Data center is an umbrella term that incudes AI, machine learning, edge computing, and applications that require high current density,” said Steve Germino, director of PR and media relations at Vicor. “The new factory enables us to meet the demand of these fast-growing markets. Our proprietary process distinguishes Vicor from our competitors and sets a new standard for high–quality, low–cost, and reliable power-module manufacturing in the United States.”

The Vicor ChiP fab ushers in a new era of power–module manufacturing. From the semiconductor–like approach to the automation and emphasis on sustainability, Vicor has been focused on excellence in manufacturing. Vicor has taken these measures not only to support customers’ demand but also with an eye toward sustainability to remain in control of the full manufacturing process, which now includes plating under one roof.

This zero–wastewater recycling system is a perfect complement to state–of–the–art Vicor manufacturing processes, which have been continually innovated upon for over 40 years. As the leading designer and manufacturer of high–performance power–module solutions, the new facility will support a new era of growth, advancement, and innovation for decades to come.

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