From EE Journal:
One thing we know for sure about semiconductor chips is that they’re really, really, really expensive to manufacture. We’re talking space-program levels of money. It costs many billions of dollars to build a new semiconductor fab, not to mention the acre-feet of water, chemicals, materials, and manpower needed to keep it running.
That’s one of the funny paradoxes of this business: it’s galactically expensive to build a chip-making plant, but the chips themselves are ridiculously cheap. This, as they teach us in Economics 101, is the power of high-volume manufacturing and amortization. If Intel, Xilinx, or Samsung made only one chip per year, we’d pay $1 billion for it. But since they produce millions of chips, we pay only a few bucks.
The volume-pricing curve also means that chips need to be big box-office hits or they won’t get the green light for production. There are no boutique semiconductor fabs hand-crafting artisanal devices for the carriage trade using Old World techniques. It’s not economically viable to make just a hundred copies of a new chip, or even a thousand or ten thousand. That’s why we have programmable devices like FPGAs and CPLDs: to fill that hole between humongous mass-production volumes and one-off specialty devices.
But what if making chips were cheap? Like, really cheap?
What if you could drop the price of a semiconductor fab by a factor of a thousand? Or a million? How would that affect the economics of the business? How many new players, and new application areas, would that enable? What if starting a new chip-making venture was no more expensive than, say, opening a new coffee shop?
Well, you can’t. I’m just messing with you. But… there is an established semiconductor company doing something very close to this.
Brewer Science has been around for more than 30 years, and they’re a big behind-the-scenes player in fab technology. It’s the company that developed antireflective coating for semiconductor lithography, and, if you’re the guy in charge of managing fab operations, you’ve probably got Brewer Science on speed dial.
They’re not really a semiconductor company, though; not like shiny-machine makers Applied Materials or KLA-Tencor. They’re more into chemistry and materials science. They just happen to apply that chemistry expertise to a very willing and lucrative market in the semiconductor business. That’s been their bread and butter for decades, but bread and butter alone make for a dull (and unhealthy) diet. So, the company has branched out.
A decade ago, a splinter group within the company started looking at different ways to apply their chemical wizardry to electronics. Carbon nanotubes looked interesting, but not in the way most other companies were applying them. Instead, Brewer’s scientists wound up creating conductive carbon-based inks. These inks (along with related materials) could be applied like, well, ink to “print” electronic circuits. From that came the company’s first ink-jet printer – that makes electronics.
The company currently offers three printed devices: a temperature sensor, a moisture sensor, and a flex sensor. All three are printed using special ink on the company’s own production line. But, as an added bonus, all three are also flexible. You can bend ’em.