Renesas foundry affected by power outage caused by lightning

It would seem that of all the semiconductor companies, mother nature has an ax to grind against Renesas with first fire and now lightning strike. What exactly happened at the Renesas plant, what else did Renesas struggle with, and how does this show the need for foundries to have better backup facilities?

Renesas production temporarily halted by lightning

Recently, Renesas announced that a of its facilities in Kawashiri suffered a major power outage caused by a storm. Despite protective measures to ensure power is never completely cut off, the outage lasted longer than expected and parts of Renesa’s production line had to be scrapped. As equipment checks continue to be carried out, Renesas expects that up to two weeks of materials have been lost and it will take a week of production time to catch up.

The lightning strike that knocked out the power is from the recent Typhoon Aere that hit Kumamoto City. It was discovered that a lightning strike struck a power line supplying the smelter, which caused a massive voltage spike while simultaneously damaging the grid infrastructure. With the voltage supply, Renesas had no choice but to shut down 90% of its equipment to keep the most important equipment running.

What else has Renesas struggled with?

This is not the first disaster Renesas has faced in the past. Last year, Renesas experienced a fire that damaged its Naka smelter, responsible to produce 300 mm slices. That same year, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake forced another facility to suspend operations, and several years earlier, an earthquake struck another facility causing structural damage.

Japan is no stranger to natural disasters due to their proximity to the Pacific Ocean (famous for its typhoons) and the fact that Japan sits on the edge of a geologically active area called the Ring of Fire. Thus, most Japanese infrastructure is designed to cope with devastating earthquakes, large floods and wind speeds too fast to imagine. But even then, it is not possible to protect against all eventualities, and it seems that such events are becoming more and more frequent.

However, this frequency of random acts of nature might only attract attention because they have affected semiconductor production, and this is something the world simply cannot afford. The 2020 COVID pandemic has thrown the world into chaos, and the resulting lockdowns in an attempt to control the spread of the virus have seen many industries are closing down (particularly the automotive industry). When the lockdowns were lifted, the sudden demand for semiconductors that had not been produced caused a massive shortage that is still felt today.

Thus, any event that affects a semiconductor factory anywhere in the world may be more likely to attract media attention compared to the pre-COVID era.

How does this event demonstrate the importance of backup systems?

Although it lost two weeks worth of hardware, Renesas was able to recover from the incident and plans to restore full functionality shortly. While it’s easy to point fingers and suggest Renesas introduce better protection mechanisms, it should be noted that the size of the smelters, the amount of energy required to keep them operational, and the logistics required make the defense against unexpected events very difficult. Additionally, Renesas plant operators have already mentioned that downtime has been occurring for longer than ever, meaning Renesas effectively has the capabilities to defend against temporary power losses.

However, the pressure on semiconductors foundries will continue to be high as customers see lead times as long as two years, and any defects in the manufacturing process will not be considered positively. Additionally, the delay in installing Renesas also demonstrates the need for strong defenses against unforeseen events. If the importance of semiconductors continues to increase, the resilience of foundries must also improve.

A potential solution for the future is to place these facilities next to power plants with access to fresh water. Such a facility could have a dedicated line to a nearby power plant that is never turned off, and access to fresh water facilities ensures the smelter is always well stocked. Additionally, it may become prudent for foundries to maintain large warehouses storing additional raw materials and finished dies. An integrated circuit that is not diced and mounted in a package takes up much less space if left on a wafer, and thus an installation could easily store billions of devices in a relatively small size.

Robert M. Larson