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The Seattle startup using AI to automate semiconductor manufacturing

  • Louise Matsakis

Tignis will likely benefit from the landmark CHIPs and Science Act passed by Congress last month.

Manufacturing semiconductors is one of the most complicated industrial processes in the world. It happens on massive factory floors up to seven stories tall and the length of four football fields. The chips are slowly created from sheets of silicon called wafers, and it can take up to two months before they’re ready to be installed in cars, smartphones, appliances, and other electronic gadgets.

One Seattle-based startup wants to make manufacturing chips easier by using artificial intelligence. Tignis, which raised $10 million from investors earlier this year, sells a suite of software tools that companies can use to automate their semiconductor fabrication plants, or fabs.

A lot of things can easily go wrong at a semiconductor fab. The buildings must be kept pristine, because even one tiny speck of dust will ruin chips. Inside each fab are enormous machines tasked with placing millions, or even billions, of microscopic transistors onto the surface of each semiconductor. Any slight movement or vibration may disrupt them.

One of the products Tignis offers is PAICe Monitor, which allows engineers to find and diagnose these kinds of problems with chip production lines in real time.

“This results in improved productivity, higher yield in high volume production, faster cycle time, and cost savings,” Tignis explains on its website.

The startup was co-founded in 2017 by Jon Herlocker, who was previously an executive at the cloud computing company VMware and a tenured computer science professor at Oregon State University. The company’s other co-founder and head of engineering is Matt McLaughlin, who also came from VMware.

Tignis will likely benefit from landmark legislation recently passed in Congress. Last month, President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, giving $52 billion in subsidies to companies that want to make semiconductors in the United States. Lawmakers hope the infusion of cash will help the U.S. to compete with China.

“The advancement of AI process control technology in semiconductor manufacturing that Tignis is undertaking is of particular importance to the U.S. market, to re-establish competitiveness and leadership in this industry,” Herlocker, Tignis’ CEO, said in a press release.

Currently, only around 12% of global semiconductor manufacturing happens in the United States, down from 37% in 1990. But almost all of the most advanced chips are produced in Taiwan, an island nation that China claims is part of its territory. The U.S. government worries that leaves the global supply chain for semiconductors vulnerable, especially if the Chinese military were ever to invade Taiwan.

Cutting-edge chips are crucial for the development of many emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, and are also used in drones and other military weapons. If U.S. companies can’t access chips, they will have significant trouble bringing their products to market, as happened during a recent semiconductor shortage caused by the pandemic.