PragmatIC Semiconductor has secured $80 million in funding to build a second FlexLogIC fab with five times the capacity of its existing fab, in order to meet a growing demand for its low-cost flexible integrated circuits (IC) for the internet of things (IoT).
In an interview to explain the rationale for the new fab and the company’s intentions, Scott White, CEO of PragmatIC Semiconductor told EE Times, “The first fab was introduced a couple of years ago, for which demand has been good. We expect to reach capacity soon, so the new planned fab will be a larger capacity version of the existing one. The second fab will also be a template for offering a fab-on-site to customers in the future, which will be modular and low capex.”
The FlexLogIC production system is a scalable manufacturing model for high-volume production, achieved with orders of magnitude less capital investment and operating cost compared to a traditional silicon IC fab. Detailed material recipes, end-to-end process flows, in-line quality monitoring and feedback control loops are implemented within the equipment and automation software, to ensure reliable production without operator intervention.
The fab supports a production cycle time of less than one day, compared with several months for a typical silicon fab. Due to its compact footprint and self-contained design, FlexLogIC can be located wherever needed around the globe, allowing agile “just-in-time” IC production.
Questioned on the fab capacity, both for the existing and the new one, White said the current fab is used for a mix of research and development and production. It is currently producing up to half a billion units for RFID circuits.
White said, “The new fab will be fully dedicated to production, so will be operating 24/7 and hence have about five times the capacity. We are currently finalizing the new site, and planning to allow space for a further five to six fabs over the next few years.” The site will be in County Durham in the North East of England, and White said they are negotiating for the space at the moment, hoping to make an announcement in the next few weeks.
White said this will be a precursor to offering fab-as-a-service, as well as dedicated production at customer sites, which will go a long way towards addressing supply chain challenges that the semiconductor industry is increasingly facing.
He said, “This successful series C round is a testament to the potential for our technology to enable trillions of smart items and address key UN sustainable development goals. Our FlexLogIC-002 fab will deliver significantly higher capacity than our first line, whilst still maintaining our signature ultra-low capex, fast production cycle time and minimal carbon footprint. In addition to supporting our continued commercial ramp, it provides a template for rolling out a distributed global network of FlexLogIC systems, offering a fab-as-a-service (FaaS) for dedicated production on major customer sites to enable efficient and secure semiconductor supply chains.”
White added, “One of the reasons investors were excited is because it [our business model] changes the dependence on existing supply chain and logistics challenges, with the fab being able to be close to where the product is used or required.”
The investment will help the company grow from 115 people now to over 250 people over the next year. The investment round didn’t have any lead investors, but a group of highly qualified selected industrial and individual investors with significant experience in the semiconductor industry. White said the reason is there were a limited number of investors in the U.K. who would be able to lead such a large round.
FMCG packaging and circular economy driving demand
Asked about the biggest market so far and the opportunity for flexible ICs, White said FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) packaging was the biggest application area, as well as the circular economy. “A theme that’s grown over the last year is to offer better communications to consumers about products, as well as information on reuse and recycling — products that can be tracked, enabling that information.”
He highlighted an example, a £1.3 million contract it received earlier this year from the U.K. government sustainable innovation fund for a state-of-the-art recycling scheme based on PragmatIC’s NFC technology. In an initiative code-named SPRITE (sustainable plastics recycling innovation by tagging electronically), PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and refillable packaging will be given unique digital IDs to support automated identification and recycling. The scheme intends to use NFC labels as a route to frictionless consumer engagement in recycling and in particular enabling refillable packaging models, and more broadly for high volume FMCG applications.
White said other applications seeing traction include healthcare, for traceability of samples, and more broadly to embed intelligence into everyday things. This was echoed by Dipesh Patel, chief technology officer at Arm, who said, “Billions of everyday objects could benefit from being part of the internet of things, but to continue to scale sustainably we need to explore new approaches for embedding intelligence into everyday objects. Flexible electronics can extend the range and scope of what is possible today and we see massive potential for it to be creatively adopted by the Arm ecosystem, leading to innovation with global impact.”