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New lab gives PSU national dominance

Within a tidy room in the Fourth Avenue Building basement nestles an array of gadgetry that resembles a set from a sci-fi movie, but gives Portland State University a high tech facility unmatched by any American university.

With a current equipment value of $3 million, it is the newly renovated and expanded integrated circuits design and test laboratory, commonly called the IC Lab. Designed for testing the chips that are used to make integrated circuits, it claims to have no peer at any university, even the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It is state-of-the-art unique,” said Pamela Miller, director of external relations for the college of engineering and computer science. “Portland State is trying to differentiate itself from other universities by having ‘spires of excellence.’ We’re never going to compete with an MIT probably but we’ve got some things that MIT doesn’t have. So therefore, we’re different. We have something we can excel in.

“We’re trying to achieve as many spires of excellence that we can.”

The equipment is used for sophisticated circuit design and testing. Those little microchips can have microscopic but fatal defects. Testing can be a frustrating experience but the Portland State facility is designed to do just that. And it can test the chips over the Internet.

The university didn’t have to labor under the burden of raising the $3 million worth of equipment. The gear actually came in donations, the largest from Credence Systems Corporation of Fremont, Calif., with another large donation from Electroglas of San Jose, Calif.

The lab has been in development since 1998 under the direction of Robert Daasch, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the lab.

Credence donated an earlier model of its technology two years ago. Its donation at that time was valued at $1 million. Recently it delivered the newest model, with a value perhaps of $1.3 million, consigning the earlier machinery to a corner of the lab.

This newest renovation features the trade-marked Quartet system-on-chip production test system. Electroglas donated a $250,000 wafer-probe station.

The lab is used by both undergraduate and graduate students for instruction and research, under Daasch’s supervision. It also does work to serve the semiconductor industry.

The renovation made possible by the two latest donations inspired a rededication reception for the lab June 13. Ninety people, many representing the computer industry, attended. At the ceremony, Robert Dryden, dean of the college of engineering and computer science, thanked Credence and Electroglas for their donations.

“Thanks to the support of Credence and Electroglas, Portland State has a unique, state-of-the-art university research facility to help overcome one of the key challenges to the future of the semiconductor industry – making sure that a higher percentage of integrated circuits function correctly,” he said.

Credence will continue to train PSU faculty and staff in operation of the new equipment. The company maintains advanced production and design facilities at Hillsboro.

How long will the PSU system remain without peer among American universities?

“That’s hard to say,” Miller commented. “The original lab was donated two years ago and we still had something that no one else had. These pieces of equipment are so expensive that they don’t just donate them casually. If we can test products all over the country, why would another university need the piece of equipment? We can do it for them over the Internet. We have remote testing capabilities.”

The value of the testing capability, Miller said, is not in the expense of the manufacture of the chips, it’s in the testing of the chips. PSU can do that to help keep companies’ and universities’ costs down.

Even if the PSU unit becomes superseded in a few years, it will continue to have the possibility of upgrades, Miller said.

What benefit do these manufacturers gain from donating equipment they are actually selling?

“It can serve as a national test facility. It’s a way for them to expose a lot of companies and universities to their products,” Miller said.

Portland State finds itself in a uniquely favorable position for this type of service to the industry. All steps in the industry operate here, from automation design firms to chip design and manufacturing firms to test and measurement companies.

The room which contains the lab won an award for the designer, Stuart Emmons of Emmons/Architects.