Cree banks on SiC to capture vehicle market

Cree, Delphi team on silicon carbide
Cree is preparing for a significant uptick in SiC (silicon carbide) inverters for automotive and industrial applications, according to CEO Gregg Lowe. (Cree)

Throughout 2019, Cree Inc. has been making a lot of noise in the silicon carbide area, negotiating supply agreements with other semiconductor companies as well as announcing joint technology partnerships with others. At the ROTH Capital Partners investor conference in New York City Thursday, Cree CEO Gregg Lowe said the company was preparing for a significant uptick in SiC (silicon carbide) inverters for automotive and industrial applications in the early part of the next decade.

“Half of our pipeline is automotive related,” Lowe told a packed audience. “We’re investing in R&D research, capital expenditures for production.”

Lowe added Cree was preparing for what could be a significant uptick in electric vehicle production in the next few years.

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“We’re engaging with engineering groups to get a list of what they need,” Lowe added. “Typically, there’s two years of design-in, followed up two years of production ramp-up.”

SiC semiconductors are coveted for their lower switching losses and ability to operate at higher frequencies than their silicon equivalents. Designers are looking at silicon carbide semiconductors particularly for higher voltages (650 V and above).

For the automotive market, silicon carbide is being targeted for high-power inverters for electric vehicles, which will undoubtedly increase substantially as automakers retool their fleets.

“Automakers such as Volkswagen are all in,” Lowe said. “They are slated to produce their last internal combustion engineered vehicle in 2025; thereafter all their vehicles will be either hybrid-electric or fully electric.”

For its part, Cree has engaged in developmental partnerships with several companies. Cree teamed with Delphi on inverters for traction drives in September. This month, Cree announced agreements with German-based automotive supplier ZF Friedrichshafen AG on electric vehicle drivelines, and ABB on SiC-based power modules.

The demand for silicon carbide has led to semiconductor manufacturers partnering to ensure adequate supply. In August, Cree agreed to supply ON Semiconductor with SiC wafers for vehicle and industrial applications. Earlier this week, Cree said it will double its supply of SiC wafers to STMicroelectronics.

With the pressure to produce sufficient quantities of silicon carbide increasing, it’s no wonder Cree has been scurrying to expand their infrastructure to meet demand.

In May, Cree invested $1 billion to expand its silicon carbide production capacity. But Cree made a much bolder move in September, announcing it would build a state-of-the-art, automotive-qualified 200-mm power and RF wafer fabrication facility in Marcy, New York.

Cree CEO Lowe told FierceElectronics in a brief interview that a generous package of business tax incentives was a factor in the decision to build a new plant in upstate New York, which is normally not thought of as a hotbed of high-tech activity. But Lowe emphasized that the availability of a skilled technical workforce, fueled by engineering colleges such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, SUNY Polytechnic Albany, and Clarkson University—all located several hours from the planned facility—played a key role also.

“We’re already receiving applications from qualified applicants to work in the upcoming facility,” Lowe noted. The plant is slated to begin operations in 2022.

Meanwhile, Lowe said during the presentation that Cree is making progress in improving yields and lowering the cost of silicon carbide production. “From the SiC substrate perspective, we’re moving well up on the learning curve to making substantial reductions in the cost of silicon carbide—through scaling, quality, and efficiency improvements. We have had a cost reduction roadmap for the past 18 months, and so far each quarter we have exceeded our cost reduction goals.”

Lowe added that the new fab will be state-of-the-art in that it will be highly automated and not utilize the bay approach of traditional fabs, which often required humans to move materials. The setup will allow more machines to reside in the space available, further improving space utilization of the projected 480,000 square foot plant.

Because the production process for manufacture of SiC devices involves high temperatures, there’s always the possibility of less than stellar yields, industry observers and analysts have noted. Acknowledging the challenges involved with SiC production, Lowe said, “You cross your fingers and see what happens. We’ve made silicon carbide for a long time. We have had to figure ways to slice crystals, etc., before you supply wafers to OEMs.”


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