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Robotic Microelectronic Planar Serial Sectioning System


RT&L FOCUS AREA(S): Microelectronics

TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Battlespace, Electronics, Sensors

The technology within this topic is restricted under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR), 22 CFR Parts 120-130, which controls the export and import of defense-related material and services, including export of sensitive technical data, or the Export Administration Regulation (EAR), 15 CFR Parts 730-774, which controls dual use items. Offerors must disclose any proposed use of foreign nationals (FNs), their country(ies) of origin, the type of visa or work permit possessed, and the statement of work (SOW) tasks intended for accomplishment by the FN(s) in accordance with section 3.5 of the Announcement. Offerors are advised foreign nationals proposed to perform on this topic may be restricted due to the technical data under US Export Control Laws.

OBJECTIVE:  Develop a tool for automated, procedural planar serial sectioning of semiconductor microelectronic devices.

DESCRIPTION: Serial sectioning Integrated Circuits (ICs) to perform Failure Analysis (FA), Fault Isolation (FI), Reverse Engineering (RE), and Design Validation (DV) is time-consuming and repetitive work that is well suited for human-robot collaboration and robotic automation. Frontside, backside, and crosswise serial sectioning of IC samples often requires operators to maintain a serial sectioning precision to within less than twenty nanometers for multiple hours or days, often leading to operator fatigue and error. The wet chemistry, polishing slurries and pressurized nitrogen flows involved in serial sectioning do not easily lend themselves to bench-top systems. A larger, human-scale processing space oriented around an extended robotic arm with the ability to transition samples between acid baths of etchant, colloidal silica polishing slurries, liquid-soaked cleaning pads, sonicating baths of cleaning solvents, and compressed nitrogen gasses for drying samples is a realistic approach to both automating these processes and to minimizing the cost of maintaining equipment. The physical separation between each serial sectioning process that a robotic arm affords will prevent cross-contamination of materials, allow ease of access for preventative maintenance and routine equipment cleaning, and prevent liquids and corrosives from damaging mechanical and electrical equipment. A robotic arm also allows for the possibility of automatically inserting samples into a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) after each successive serial sectioning step. Current technology is limited to automatic frontside, backside, and crosswise serial sectioning to within accuracies of approximately one micron. Defense Microelectronics Activity needs the capability to do this to within tens of nanometers. While humans are able to perform all three of these processes, repeatability between sample preparation is often inconsistent, and both the great length of time it takes to perform coupled with limited numbers of personnel makes it impossible to validate the designs of and perform failure analysis on the large quantity of microelectronics employed by DoD. It is critical to national security and to the work being done by multiple DoD initiatives across different agencies that these processes become automated in the near future.

PHASE I:  Feasibility study of automatic serial sectioning an IC to an arbitrary metal layer in a planar manner that results in all vias being present, along with a relatively uniform interlayer dielectric material (ILD), and all metal lines beneath it. Having all three of these present in a single image: vias, the ILD to hold the vias in place, and the metal lines beneath the ILD is the first preliminary benchmark of the automatic serial sectioning system. The following requirements should be met:

1) Material removal with an accuracy of less one-hundred nanometers across a one square centimeter IC with reference to the initial planar surface of the IC, or less than 0.0006° tilt.

2) Highly perpendicular crosswise serial sectioning to within 90°±0.0006°.

3) Serial-sectioning to a target location with accuracy of less than a micron. 

4) Microscope images should be taken while serial-sectioning. All vias and metal lines of the layer of interest should be present at time of imaging, and the microscope should be capable of imaging these vias and metal lines up to 500x magnification.

5) A study should be done on how to make all equipment and machinery self-contained, requiring no external plumbing, drainage, or ventilation. Details should be provided on how this will be achieved in Phase II.   

6) Detailed recipes, stating rates or times taken to serial section, and clean IC samples should be provided. All equipment, chemicals, materials, and supplies employed in the process should be stated. 

7) DMEA users of the tool should have the full ability to program the machine to suit their needs. The software should include flexibility to modify serial sectioning recipes and parameters.

8) Detailed plans of all mechanical parts designed for this contract should be furnished to DMEA in original digital format.

Deliver a feasibility report of research and innovation, including a list of possible components, a storyboard of software that will control the tool and a program plan for system development. If any of the above restraints cannot be adhered to, the report must include relevant research and rationale. If adhering to the above constraints is possible, but not financially feasible, the report must include relevant research and rationale.

PHASE II: Based on the aforementioned study and applicable innovation,

1) Produce a fully functioning self-contained prototype that adheres to all the constraints listed in Phase I.

2) Test the prototype and deliver along with at least (3) samples for each application, for a total of (9) samples. The applications are: Frontside, backside, and crosswise serial sectioning. The samples should all be the same device (to be determined during Phase I) and should show the process repeatability between both samples.

3) Deliver a complete Bill of Materials (BOM), including all part numbers used, manufacturers, quantities, technical datasheets, facility requirements, and deliver CAD files and digital designs of all mechanical parts designed for this SBIR.

4) Provide multiple images showing individual IC metal layers, along with ILD, and all vias intact showing that the process is repeatable. For example, only seven of these types of images for a seven metal layer device are required to obtain all data of the entire integrated circuit design layout. Due to time constraints, this requirement is not mandatory, although this is one of the intended purposes of the equipment. It will do a great service to the reputed capability of the system if it demonstrates that it can validate the design of an entire IC by frontside serial sectioning.

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: There may be opportunities for further development of this system for use in a specific military or commercial application.  During a Phase III program, offerors may refine the performance of the design and produce pre-production quantities for evaluation by the Government.

The Robotic Microelectronic Planar Serial Sectioning would be applicable to both commercial and government semiconductor device research and FA. Government applications include FA, FI, DV and RE of semiconductors. Commercial applications include FA and FI of semiconductors.

Potential Value to DoD: High throughput serial sectioning of integrated circuits for the purposes of failure analysis, fault isolation, reverse engineering, design validation and counterfeit inspection is critical to national security. Given the sheer quantity of microelectronics employed by DoD, automation is a realistic approach to performing these tasks at scale.


  1. Kimura, A., Scholl, J., Schaffranek, J., Sutter, M., Elliott, A, Strizich, M. & David, G., A Decomposition Workflow for Integrated Circuit Verification and Validation, J Hardw Syst Secur (2020) 1-10.
  2. Uchic, M., Groeber, M., Shah, M., Callahan, P., Shiveley, A., Scott, M., Chapman, M. and Spowart, J., An automated multi-modal serial sectioning system for characterization of grain-scale microstructures in engineering materials, Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on 3D Materials Science (2012) 195-202.
  3. Horstmann, H., Körber, C., Sätzler, K., Aydin, D., & Kuner, T., Serial section scanning electron microscopy (S 3 EM) on silicon wafers for ultra-structural volume imaging of cells and tissues, PloS one (2012), 7(4) e35172.
  4. Zankel, A., Wagner, J. and Poelt, P., Serial sectioning methods for 3D investigations in materials science. Micron 62 (2014) 66-78.
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