Quality and Risk in Microelectronics: Why Industry and Government Collaboration Is More Important Than Ever

microelectronics

Applying the latest and most comprehensive microelectronics technology to secure defense applications is critical for the continued and future success of our military. To advance the functionality of microelectronic technology within the U.S. military commercial and defense partnerships have never been more important.

From the ’70s to the early ’90s, the U.S. Government and Department of Defense were leading the evolution of computer-based powers. As new commercial technology companies began to rise, their innovation capabilities started to advance past what the DoD could achieve with limited resources and heavier regulations. As a result, the commercial sector is the primary innovator in computer technologies.

During our recent XCel event, Brett Hamilton, SSTM, Deputy Principal Director Microelectronics, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, explained the unrelenting importance of quality microelectronics development and the risk they currently pose. Throughout this article, we’ll review some of the key takeaways from his presentation and take a closer look into how Hamilton believes nontraditional organizations can help support defense microelectronic efforts.

How can commercial quality standards positively impact DoD prototypes?

Currently, in the commercial microelectronics sector, creating more reliable chips is crucial. As powerful new technologies are used in everyday items like smart televisions and autonomous vehicles, our lives are increasingly dependent on trusted, sophisticated microelectronics.

Take cars for example…

In a 2018 article by Price, Sutherland, and Rathert, exploring defects in the automotive industry, the authors noted that, “If the average car contains 5,000 chips and an automaker produces 25,000 cars per day, then even a chip failure rate of 1 part per million (ppm) will result in 125 cars per day that experience reliability issues as a result of chip quality.”

These same cars drive families to school, power missions worldwide, and transport military personnel home from tours. The quality of these chips is vital to the lives of everyone who interacts with them.

The automotive industry is starting to solve for these errors, by requiring that the potential risk be lessened from parts per million to parts per billion; and eventually working toward only allowing a maximum number of “total allowable failure events” regardless of volume.

According to Hamilton, by partnering with organizations that are already focused on reducing flaws in microelectronics the DoD can decrease risk and quickly develop more successful prototypes.

Addressing Risk in Microelectronics

When it comes to military-grade technology, we need to guarantee little to no risk with the microelectronics we use. In his presentation, Hamilton says that threats to our military have only increased as the world becomes more technology-powered. The reliability of microelectronics will be determined by the ability to address risks in development such as design bugs, corrupt/incomplete training data, radiation-induced damage, thermal/electrical stress, etc.

“Everything is electronic and connected up remotely, there’s a lot of open doors to be able to do way more mischievous things than in the past,” said Hamilton. “It really is a technical battle when protecting our hardware, software, and systems. Hardware is the root of trust.”

In response, the government has developed a system to increase the quality of microelectronic prototypes and reduce the risk by focusing mainly on…

  • User Intellectual Property
  • Supply Chain Illumination
  • Shared Data and Quantitative Analysis
  • Authentication/Secure Boot
  • And Actionable Intelligence

Enabling the commercial sector to help power the military and encourage technology growth is vital to the success of the contemporary Warfighter.

“Microelectronics is one of the 11 DoD modernization priorities [including] 5G, Space, and Cyber; but microelectronics is different because it is actually an enabler for every other DoD modernization priority,” said Hamilton. “Leveraging PAAs has really helped us speed up that process of getting things on contract and also working with nontraditional on contracts.”

By working with OTAs and similar contracting vehicles, the DoD can increase the quality of their technology when partnering with the same innovators leading microelectronic development on the commercial side, ensuring the same type of secure reliability in our military’s technology.

Want to learn more? Watch the full webinar recording from the April XCEL Webinar: S²MARTS and Microelectronics, A Vital Partnership for our Warfighter here.

s2marts microelectronics

References:

Price, Sutherland, and Rathert, “Process Watch: The (Automotive) Problem With Semiconductors,” Solid State Technology, January 2018.