Exploring Semiconductor Reliability

Posted by Craig Hillman on Jan 31, 2018 1:11:00 PM


A common feeling among many designers and users of military electronic systems is nostalgia.  Nostalgia for the good old days when the electronics industry was almost the exclusive supply chain of the military. While almost all aspects of integrated circuits (ICs) have improved over the past few decades (better, faster, cheaper), many in the military still long for the day when almost every semiconductor device on the market met or exceed their requirements without even asking.

Nowadays, the thinking goes, every electronic part is built for ‘throwaway’ mobile products, which must mean the parts are poor quality and too fragile to support the warfighter. What to do? Throw up your arms and pay 100X or 1000X the cost of a commercial part for something military or space-qualified? Close your eyes, cover your ears, and pick the next best thing?

The fault with this thinking is it is in complete contradiction with reality. According to IC Insights, the size of the integrated circuit market in 2017 was $278 billion. The end-use applications for these devices can be divided into three basic categories (see pie chart below).

Semiconductor Chart.png

The first, highlighted in shades of blue, are mobile products. They include cellphones, tablets, and wearables. While mobile products tend to have the shortest lifetimes (between 18 to 36 months), their quality levels cannot be easily dismissed. Recent versions of the Apple iPad have demonstrated component failure rates below 300 ppb over the first 12 months[1].

The second are home/office products, highlighted in shades of green. These systems have longer lifetimes than mobile, typically between 36 to 84 months, but the use environment is much more stable than with mobile products (constant temperature, non-condensing humidity, no vibration/shock except for transport). The first two categories have very similar market share, with each having approximately 36%.

However, the third and final category is the most relevant to military applications because it includes their ‘critical cousins’. This high reliability category includes automotive, telecom, high-end servers and medical. All these applications demand very low failure rates, long lifetimes (up to 20 years), and, at least for automotive, need to operate in demanding environments. This category makes up a not-inconsequential 26% share of the IC market. This result in hundreds, if not thousands, of state-of-the-art integrated circuits that are designed and produced to be the high quality and high reliability the military demands. All at an affordable price.

What does it all mean? It means spending $1000 for one military-grade 600V FET and placing 44 of these FETs on a board is a complete waste of money and time. It means part-level repair can be reduced or eliminated except for the most extreme applications. It means that the curse of obsolescence can be ameliorated by not going through crazy qualification procedures and limited supply chains. And, most important, it means the cost of certain technologies can be cut in half while reducing the time it takes to get the solution in the hands of the warfighter.


[1] E. Wyrwas and C. Hillman, Alternative Methods to Qualify EEE parts for Small Missions, NEPP Workshop 2014, https://nepp.nasa.gov/workshops/eeesmallmissions/talks/11%20-%20THUR/1130%20-%20Alternative%20Methods%20to%20Qualify%20EEE%20parts%20for%20Small%20Missions.pdf


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Topics: Semiconductor technology, integrated circuits

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