IBM Canada Success Story

Green and Clean: Developing Smart Technology for Smart Energy Solutions

Along the edge of Québec’s Eastern Townships sits a small town called Bromont. With less than 8,000 people, this municipality is an internationally recognized innovation hub that is anchored by multinational firms.  Its high tech industrial park boasts technology powerhouses such as IBM.  In fact, Bromont is home to IBM’s largest semiconductor packaging and test centre in the world.  The advanced microchips and systems that emerge from this facility are embedded in various products from video games consoles to telecommunications equipment and high-end servers.

IBM Bromont operates 24 hours a day.  Hundreds of engineers and technicians contribute to the packaging of millions of microchips per year, generating up to half a billion dollars annually.  In a highly competitive global business where technology rapidly becomes obsolete, the facility constantly strives to boost productivity.  It is committed to enhancing efficiency, lowering manufacturing costs and increasing output.  It is also dedicated to reducing its impact on the environment.

IBM Bromont aims to develop greener microchip packaging processes that reduce the power, water and chemicals consumed by the plant.  This will enable the company to provide the world with greener microchips for a host of products.  This includes energy-efficient smart grid systems developed by Trilliant, a global smart grid communications platform company originally founded in Québec.  Now headquartered in Silicon Valley, California, Trilliant’s platform enables all smart grid applications – from smart distribution to smart metering and smart consumer – all from one powerful network.  The company maintains an R&D team in Granby, Québec that plays a key role in the delivery of smart energy solutions for utility companies worldwide.  Excited by the possibilities of R&D collaboration, IBM Bromont and Trilliant have joined forces on an Equation sub-project to translate this global vision into reality.

Leveraging funding from the Government of Québec through Equation, the companies are pursuing two objectives as part of this project:

  • IBM Bromont aims to develop more environmentally friendly microchip packaging processes; and
  • Trilliant seeks to benefit from IBM’s new packaging processes and acquire the specialized chips it requires for its smart energy products.

IBM – Developing Greener Microchip Packaging Processes

IBM Bromont specializes in the packaging and assembly of microchips – small devices that are big business.  Microchips are tiny components made of silicon that conduct, send and receive electrical signals.  At the end of the microchip fabrication process, the device must be attached to a lightweight unit called a substrate.  This requires special materials that allow the chip to transmit signals to the outside world while protecting it against damage and corrosion.  This package enables all the connections inside the chip to function properly once it is embedded inside a device such as a cell phone or other electronic device or system.

During the packaging process, IBM Bromont uses different chemical solutions or fluxes that help to solder the microchip to the substrate.The company then undertakes a chemical cleaning process that demands extensive energy and large volumes of water.  As part of the Equation Project, IBM Bromont strives to develop new packaging materials and processes that fuse the device to the substrate with minimal use of chemicals, water and energy.  Among its ideas, the company is exploring thermal compression bonding techniques that use heat and compression to solder materials together with greater efficiency.  This would eliminate the need for a chemical cleaning process, and significantly reduce the associated water and energy consumed by the plant.  To achieve this objective, the team must overcome several technical hurdles.

“The package enables the microchip to function within an application or product,” said Mr. Etienne Lemieux, Packaging Development Business Unit Manager, IBM Canada Bromont.  “There are up to 20,000 connections between a chip and a substrate.  Our new packaging solution must deliver reliable and robust bonding between these elements and consistently support all of these interconnections.  If just one of these connections fail, the chip is worthless.  If we can develop an effective packaging process that requires fewer chemicals, uses less water and is more energy efficient, it would reduce the time and cost of packaging. Moreover, it would enhance our competitiveness and environmental sustainability, leaving a legacy in Québec for many generations to come.”

Over the last year, the team has assessed different approaches for packaging processes.  These experiments brought together senior packaging engineers from IBM Bromont, and postdoctoral students such as Mamadou Diop from the Université de Sherbrooke.

“Over the last year, I have explored alternative packaging processes and new microchip surface treatments that reduce energy consumption and cost for IBM,” said Mamadou Diop.  “These approaches also support faster microchip assembly, helping to improve the overall productivity of the plant.  This Equation Project has enabled me to acquire a better understanding of the microelectronics industry by working directly with an industry leader.  This hands-on experience will open-up new doors as I pursue an engineering career.”

Trilliant – Leveraging Green Technology for Smart Energy Products

Trilliant is expected to be among the beneficiaries of these new packaging processes.  Recently recognized as one of the top 100 global cleantech companies for the fourth year in a row, Trilliant is driven to work with suppliers that share its commitment to environmental sustainability.  This includes technology developers that can deliver the advanced components required for its next-generation smart meter.  Through this Equation sub-project, Trilliant is working with IBM Bromont to define the specifications for its green packaging solution, as well as the specialized chips it requires for its smart energy products.

As part of Trilliant’s Communications Platform portfolio, the company has developed a communication device called the Trilliant Communications Hub (or the Trilliant Hub) that is targeted to the European energy market.  Intended for distribution by energy companies, the device enables customers to better track gas and electricity consumption, and make educated decisions about future energy use.  For example, it provides information that might prompt a home owner to use energy during off-peak hours (such as midnight) as opposed to peak hours (such as 5PM).  This would help consumers to reduce their energy costs, while helping utility companies better manage energy distribution.

Trilliant completed the first iteration of the Hub in 2012 and secured British Gas as its first customer.  This utility company has initiated the deployment of the Hub to their customers in the United Kingdom.  Following the receipt of customer feedback, Trilliant aims to create a second version of the Hub with new functionality.  They require advanced microchips to deliver the desired capability.  The long-term goal is to fabricate these components at IBM Bromont using new green packaging process developed during this Equation sub-project.

According to Éric Bourget, Director of Hardware Engineering for Trilliant in Granby, Québec, “Equation provides the 60 employees in Granby, Québec with a strategic mandate.  Moreover, it will enable us to broaden our in-house expertise and create up to 15 new jobs.  This allows us to play a greater role in Trilliant’s multinational R&D team, while increasing our impact on the local economy.  By contributing to the development of smart grid solutions sold around the world, we are helping to generate global revenues that flow back to Québec.  More importantly, our partnership with IBM Bromont enables us to contribute to the development of new business practices that help preserve our environment.”

Going forward, Trilliant and IBM Bromont look forward to working with Prompt on the development of new alliances that could further support the goals of this Equation sub-project.  This team is truly developing smart technology for smart energy solutions.  It is a unique innovation formula that promises to generate economic, social and environmental benefits for the people of Québec and many others around the world.