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FICT poised to be key player in the global market in testing probe cards.

Interview - October 20, 2023

Established in 1967 as the PCB business unit of Fujitsu, FICT is today an independent company that lives by the same founding philosophy to provide and develop state-of-the-art Semiconductor Package Substrates and PCB solutions for global customers.

SEIJI MIYOSHI, PRESIDENT OF FICT LIMITED
SEIJI MIYOSHI | PRESIDENT OF FICT LIMITED (AT THE TIME OF THE INTERVIEW, AUGUST 2023)

It is a pivotal time for Japanese manufacturing. The past three years have seen large supply chain disruptions due to COVID as well as the US-China decoupling situation, and as a result, corporate groups are looking to diversify their suppliers for reliability reasons. Known for their reliability as well as their advanced technology, Japanese firms are in an interesting position. Combined with a weak JPY, many observers argue this is a unique opportunity. Do you agree with this sentiment, and what are the advantages of Japanese firms in this current macro environment?

A significant driving force that is reshaping the landscape is the geopolitical conflict involving the US, China, and Taiwan. As of March 2023, the US has spearheaded substantial subsidies for its semiconductor industry, with the aim of repatriating manufacturing operations. This dynamic shift is exerting a profound influence. From my perspective, exporting from the US to China is notably less complicated than from Japan to China, given the considerable regulatory limitations associated with exporting from Japan. In contrast, the US faces fewer restrictions when exporting to China, which is a key rationale behind our choice to establish an overseas base in the US.

Japanese companies already excel in cutting-edge technological prowess. Simultaneously, there is a pressing need to bolster businesses linked to US semiconductor manufacturing. It is imperative for the Japanese government to take proactive measures in supporting these enterprises, thereby positioning Japan as a linchpin in the global semiconductor supply chain. Although numerous small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Japan contribute pivotal components to semiconductor production, this domain remains relatively niche. Elevating Japan’s competitiveness in global semiconductor manufacturing hinges on fostering collaborative efforts among these enterprises.

A pivotal predicament facing the Japanese semiconductor industry lies in the dispersion of proprietary technologies among different companies. However, the intricacies of this specialized market often lead to disjointedness within Japan. To surmount this, fostering robust networks and collaborations among all enterprises engaged in semiconductor production is imperative. By amalgamating these varied dimensions, Japan can proffer a holistic solution to semiconductor production, thereby solidifying its position as the epicenter of the global supply chain.

 

You talked about the importance of collaborating with semiconductor companies within Japan, but collaborating outside with overseas parties is just as important in order to ensure technological exchange. Could you elaborate on the role that overseas partnerships play in your business model? Are you looking for overseas partners as well?

In fact, we currently command a substantial share of the global market in testing probe cards (ST Boards). Given this considerable market presence, it becomes paramount to comprehensively comprehend the requirements of our ultimate consumers. While we have collaborative partners responsible for distributing our probe cards to key semiconductor manufacturers, the absence of a direct conduit impedes effective communication and understanding of the end users' needs. In light of this, extending the reach of our network and actively soliciting input from a wider spectrum of users becomes a pivotal endeavor.


Probe Card (ST Board)


As part of your GigaModule-EC series of semiconductor FC-BGA substrate packaging, FICT has succeeded in mass-producing substrate structures with embedded Thin Film Capacitors (TFC). This GigaModule-EC contributes to the development of a wide range of products, from high-end systems to mobile systems. Can you tell us a little bit more about the motivation behind the development of the GigaModule-EC and how you believe it will impact the industry going forward?

The driving objective behind the creation of the GigaModule-EC was to establish robust power stability within the realm of multiple electronic components. Given the inherent prevalence of low-voltage scenarios, the core challenge was to ensure a stable power supply. To tackle this, the GigaModule-EC incorporates sheet capacitors closer to the chip to improve the characteristics of high current supply, which has become apparent due to the low voltage and many-core semiconductors. In addition, the number of chip capacitors close to the chip, which was previously required, has been reduced, increasing the flexibility and reliability of packaging and mounting. Such technology is very useful as a substrate technology for future chiplets.

A stable power supply is very important for feeding future generations of chiplets. Furthermore, when pursuing the performance of low power consumption of chips, stabilisation of the power supply is essential for noise-resistant operation at low voltages, making thin-film capacitor technology effective. This technology was put to practical use six years ago, and the need for this technology is expected to become more widely recognised in the future.


Left: GigaModule-EC product   |   Right: Cross Section Image


One technology that you have developed is the F-ALCS (F-All Layer (Z)Connection Structure), which maximizes the wiring capacity of printed wiring boards. F-ALCS ensures highly reliable connections through paste filling and metal bonding which allow more than two times higher wiring density. Can you tell us more about this unique technology that you have developed and what challenges you have to overcome during its development?

The distinctiveness of this technology lies in its alignment with the escalating environmental concerns of our times. Given the contemporary emphasis on sustainability,

we search for alternative process solutions to reduce wastewater treatment and electricity consumption as much as possible.

As the realm of high-speed communication pushes the boundaries, signal transmissions now soar beyond 100 GHz. However, the conventional through-hole stub introduces a disruptive interference within this wavelength. In contrast, by using our conductive paste, our any-layer IVH (Interstitial Via Hole) with a one-time lamination approach stands as a stubless solution, facilitating uninterrupted high-speed transmission. This proprietary technology of ours compels us to actively seek partners, allies, and collaborators to disseminate its advantages worldwide.

In the interest of ensuring operational consistency and resilience, fostering collaboration among various entities within the industry becomes pivotal. In this context, we are actively exploring potential partners who can join forces with us to further enhance and propagate this technology.


Cross Section of our 76 layers PCB made with our F-ALCS technology


It is clear that R&D plays an important role in your company. Could you tell us more about your R&D strategy and are there any other new technologies or products that you are working on that you would like to showcase for us today?

The current standard material is Ajinomoto Build-up Film (ABF). However, our research and development (R&D) is focusing on evolving toward glass substrates.

In fact, we believe that given the prevalent trend of wiring pattern (line/space) miniaturization, transitioning toward glass substrates becomes increasingly crucial. Through our F-ALCS technology initiative, we aimed to pivot toward laminated glass technology. Unlike the conventional approach reliant on organic materials, our transition to glass empowers us to layer these components. A viable application lies in potential collaborations with LCD panel manufacturers. This collaboration could involve integrating a glass substrate into the semiconductor packaging with our G-ALCS (Glass All Layer Z-Connection Structure) technology, opening new avenues for advancement.


Multilayer Glass Substrate Prototype (G-ALCS Technology)


We know many industries related to electronics are seeing a massive trend of miniaturization. Obviously, this presents some technological challenges, and one of them is heat dissipation. How are you reacting to this miniaturization trend?

Our business model is centred on augmenting the capacity of specific substrate sizes, rather than pursuing the miniaturization of the substrates themselves. This strategic choice stems from our orientation towards catering to high-end markets such as data centers and governmental applications, rather than the realm of commercial smartphones. The applications we serve demand heightened performance rather than a reduction in size.

In fact, we are charting a trajectory that diverges from the prevailing trend – our substrates are expanding.

Typically ranging between 50mm to 100mm or more, our substrate packages serve as mounting bases for, and work in conjunction with, substrate chips to form a chiplet.

The evolving landscape has seen the cost escalation of wafers, leading to the ascendancy of chiplet as a cost-effective alternative. This shift is mirrored in the shifting value ratios; formerly, it stood at 99% wafer and 1% package substrate, but now it has transitioned to 90% wafer and 10% package substrate. We hope that this evolution will proceed even further, settling at a balanced 50-50 distribution between wafers and package substrate in the future. For the readers who are interested in the semiconductor packaging substrate world, I highly recommend watching our last video where our members bring insightful information and little-known anecdotes about it.



Your firm can trace its history back to 1967 as part of Fujitsu, in 2002 you spun off into your own company; Fujitsu Interconnect Technology, and then finally in 2022 you changed your name to FICT. What was the reason for the spin-off in the first place and what benefits has it brought your company?

 

Fujitsu's origins trace back to its inception as a manufacturing company leading in the computer industry. Nevertheless, the course of time has witnessed a notable transformation in Fujitsu's business approach. The company has gradually transitioned into a software-based service provider, prompting the decision to move away from almost all of its hardware manufacturing, including the semiconductor sector into an independent entity. This allowed us to have more freedom in our investment strategies as well as in our choice to work with customers outside of Fujitsu.



Japan is becoming known as the world’s oldest society with a rapidly shrinking population. This demographic shift is presenting many issues including a labor crisis and a shrinking domestic market. What have been some of the challenges this has presented your firm and how have you reacted to the demographic changes domestically?

In light of these shifts, the scarcity of engineers, as you mentioned, has become a pressing concern. To address this challenge, establishing a collaborative network for joint development, both domestically and internationally, assumes paramount importance. While AI systems are undoubtedly aiding in development processes, the indispensable role of human expertise in fully realizing new technologies remains evident. The crux lies in collaborative efforts that facilitate the synergistic interaction of human talent and cutting-edge tools.

Turning our attention to the production sphere, the recruitment of younger talents for our factory is proving increasingly arduous. In this context, it becomes imperative to steer clear of a complete automation approach, particularly considering the high-mix-low-volume nature of our business. Rather, the strategic focus should center on the creation of equipment that complements human efforts while bolstering productivity. One plausible avenue is the integration of robotic process automation (RPA) to augment our operations.


Package Substrate Production Line


Throughout the interview, you talked about overseas expansion, and we know you have a presence in the United States. Moving forward, what countries or regions have you identified for further expansion and what strategies will you employ to do so?

Allow me to begin by sharing my fundamental management philosophy. Our company's strategic vision revolves around attaining the pinnacle of global excellence, a goal I refer to as "Global Edge Top." What this precisely encapsulates is a steadfast commitment to the pursuit of distinction. Instead of pursuing diversification and a volume-driven production approach, our focus remains resolutely on cultivating specific client relationships, honing high-end products, and bolstering our market share within the high-end industry segment.

Historically, we have adhered to two distinct business strategies, and this dual-pronged approach will continue to steer our path into the future. Our initial strategy entails collaborating with esteemed major enterprises, particularly those that stand as pioneers in developing cutting-edge high-end products. These collaborations are strategically concentrated in Europe and the United States. The second facet of our strategy involves partnering with startups right from their nascent stages. Essentially, we facilitate their utilization of our products, aiming to nurture mutual growth. As you are aware, the venture of startups is marked by a substantial rate of uncertainty, with only one out of every ten emerging as a success story.

Speaking of startups, once they scale up and initiate mass production, our entry becomes considerably challenging. Therefore, our pivotal approach hinges on establishing connections at the earliest stages of their inception. By doing so, we glean insights into their technologies, allowing us to tailor our products to align with their evolving needs. This approach not only contributes to their growth but also synergistically nurtures our own expansion. It is worth noting that many of these startup entities are situated in the United States and Europe. Presently, we are particularly intrigued by AI server companies.


Takahisa Amemiya, President of FICT LIMITED


From the 1st of September, you took charge as the president of FICT, a firm with rich technological knowhow and expertise in electronics and semiconductors.
As the new president of FICT, what future vision do you have for the company?

We want to increase the scale of our board business by seeking technology and business partners around the world to increase the value of the company and realise our VISION: "We strive to keep on being chosen for our irreplaceability to contribute to a more comfortable and sustainable society. We want all employees to have the joy and pride of working at FICT.


Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Sasha Lauture

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