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Technology Transition Candidate: The Little Chip That Could

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – It’s the little chip that could.  A two-gram microchip versus a 340,000 pound U.S. Air Force aircraft.  A tiny military-grade chip fails in the aircraft’s network radio system and the replacement is no longer manufactured.  It’s a serious and growing problem.  

Approximately 60,000 parts are discontinued annually resulting in almost a million parts dropped from the Government Industry Data Exchange Program database since 2012, mostly electronic microcircuits.

During a visit to an industry conference, Jeffrey Sillart, an engineer in the Air Force F-16 Program Office, met a manufacturer with a promising technology.  

A commercial circuit has the same functional capability as a discontinued military version, but the part’s packaging (often plastic) doesn’t meet military requirements.  

The solution?  Take the heart of the circuit, the die, and place it into packaging, such as a ceramic coating, to protect it from the environment.  The die, roughly the size of a fingernail, is a thin slice of silicon holding billions of transistor equivalents.  

The petroleum industry was among the first to implement the technology to modify commercial circuits into high-temperature, high reliability circuits.

Sillart learned the process had not been tested for military parts and worked with the Air Force Research Laboratory on a $692,000 test which proved the commercial process satisfied military specifications.  

He spearheaded Rapid Innovation Fund projects resulting in a wide variety of parts successfully modified.  Currently he is working to make the process part of the military specification.

What about that chip in the aircraft?  A redesign of the amplifier was estimated at two million dollars and years to complete.  A RIF project remanufactured, or modified, the 5-400MHz radio frequency amplifier for the aircraft’s network radio system in 90 days at a cost of $10,000.  The part was sent to the field in July 2018 to be used on the aircraft.

The petroleum industry has remanufactured over 150,000 parts with this process. The Air Force is considering an investment to obtain a potential cost avoidance of 100 million dollars per year with some estimates of two billion dollars per year, all from “the little chip that could.”

This RIF project has successfully modified thirteen circuits and is in the process of modifying an additional twelve. 
If any programs are interested in using this technology to support your Diminishing Manufacturing Sources issues, please contact Jeffrey Sillart, jeffrey.sillart@us.af.mil) for more details.