Two major factors account for the growth of STMicroelectronics’ Rennes site over past 10 years.
The aerospace market is growing by approximately five percent per year, and the company has taken advantage of the trend. Its chips equip the Curiosity Mars rover, but also Galileo, the European GPS system, Meteosat, the Ariane launcher, the Astra television broadcasting satellites, the SPOT Earth observation satellite, and almost all satellites launched today.
Its customers include equipment manufacturers who sell parts of satellites, but also satellite manufacturers themselves. Its biggest client is the European Space Agency and its alter ego in France, the CNES (Centre National d’Études Spatiales), since STMicroelectronics gives it independence from the U.S. That takes concrete form in financing for development projects. The company also works with private players around the world and has privileged relationships with the European satellite systems integrators Thales-Alenia and EADS-Astrium.
The other factor that explains STMicroelectronics’ growth in this market and the explosion of activity at Rennes lies in the technologies the site can produce. Satellite manufacturers are not looking for the latest SoCs or the highest frequencies. They want mature technologies that have been proven over several years. For a satellite that will spend 20 years in orbit, reliability is much more important than using the latest fabrication process.
Concretely, the chips sold by STMicroelectronics use processes that date back three to five years (the company is currently working on qualification of 65 nm chips), but it also markets wafers that use a 7.5 µm (7,500 nm) process. That’s an advantage, because it has the only fab in the world that can still use that process, which dates from the 1970s, yet is still quite appropriate for high-reliability applications. One of the best-selling transistors for aerospace use is the 2N2222, introduced by Motorola in 1962.
Obviously, its production has been adapted to the new standards that govern fabrication, and the maturity of the technologies has resulted in optimized fabrication methods. Still, STMicroelectronics’ strength lies in the fact that it’s one of the rare companies in the world that can produce older-generation chips and make a profit.
Finally, there’s also a technological advantage in being able to take the time necessary to develop chips for aerospace use. Unlike certain components for consumer devices that take six months between development and marketing, four and five years can go by between the time a chip is developed and the time it’s marketed. Being able to maintain the necessary investments during that period requires resources that aren’t available to all chip makers on the market.