FormFactor, a leader in providing essential test and measurement technologies to the semiconductor industry, leads by listening.
The company’s leadership position has been shaped by an unwavering commitment to respond to its customers’ needs while leaning on its experience and extensive scientific and engineering bench to deliver the tools and technologies that match those needs.
And that’s why the Livermore, Calif.-based company is poised to become a leading supplier and solutions provider for the emerging quantum industry.
According to Mike Slessor, FormFactor (NASDAQ:FORM) President and CEO, the company has been drawn into providing solutions to the quantum space based on the needs of their customers, who were looking to the company to support their quantum technology projects.
“We are a very customer-focused company and through our engineering probe system business, we’ve had a variety of customers — like existing semiconductor customers, U.S. government contractors, national labs, for example — pull us into applications that were operating at very low temperatures, close to absolute zero, and we began, of course, to ask them the natural question ‘‘why do you want us to build a system that operates at these temperatures?’” said Slessor. “And we started to learn more and more about these emerging approaches and applications to support quantum computing.”
He added that a growing momentum to build and use quantum devices — particularly the momentum of their key customers, such as Intel, — offered FormFactor additional motivation to add resources and capital into exploring ways that the company could enable the quantum industry.
The company sees opportunities for helping the quantum industry, analogous to what FormFactor accomplished a few years back for the Silicon Photonic industry in collaboration with leading customers and partners like GlobalFoundries and Keysight Technologies
For example, current generation quantum devices are incredibly sensitive to environmental noise, so sensitive, in fact, that most versions operate at extremely cold temperatures to avoid that environmental interference. Of course, FormFactor has considerable knowledge and experience in understanding how devices operate at those ultracold temperatures, so it can immediately apply its knowledge and experience there.
The company can also leverage its considerable expertise in other areas, said Slessor.
“Customers are asking for the capability to build thermal control systems, or environmental control systems, that are operating down in temperatures that are required to make a functional qubit, but then we started to see that we could put some of electrical tests and probing knowledge and know-how that we have to help enable quantum computing and testing of quantum processors,” Slessor said.
The company plans to maintain its leadership position as a supplier to the semiconductor industry while expanding into other areas, such as quantum, said Slessor.
“FormFactor primarily is in the business of providing probes or arrays of probes, called probe cards, and engineering systems, to the mainstream semiconductor industry,” said Slessor. “But, we’ve been looking to diversify that business. We wanted to take what we knew in mainstream semiconductor test and measurement and start to apply it to other applications and markets — but not too far away from semiconductor test and measurement.”
According to Slessor, the company’s recent acquisition of High Precision Devices (HPD) grew out of that need to expand and diversify.
The Boulder, Colorado-based HPD is a leader in precision cryogenic instruments, which will help the company meet the growing demand for emerging quantum computing, superconducting computing, and ultra-sensitive sensor markets.
The two companies also share a similar vision and cultural DNA. Like FormFactor, HPD is a customer-focused and innovation-driven organization with important clients and significant relationships.
Head of HPD Engineering, Mike Snow on the acquisition piece said he is excited about how the combined organizations will empower the nascent quantum industry.
“HPD was historically a custom instrument house,” he said. “We worked with researchers around the globe to provide a host for their unique quantum experiments. In the process, we accumulated a great deal of that rare expertise in ultra-low temperature, magnetic shielding, low vibration, and other challenges surrounding Quantum Information Systems. FormFactor, with their acquisition, brings decades of leadership in solving the hardest test and measurement problems in the semiconductor industry, and in doing so at scale. Together, we are going to radically extend what’s possible in cryogenic test and measurement. We’re excited to enable the production and adoption of quantum technologies, stoked actually!”
Quantum’s Killer App?
FormFactor plans to be part of the quantum future — and the team clearly sees both the challenges and opportunities of the quantum era.
“Quantum, at least in my perspective, is still a capability in search of its killer app,” said Slessor.
He added, though, that quantum technologies’ natural ability to address big questions in science gives it nearly unlimited potential for key applications.
“There are many things that, at least in principle, quantum computers can do better than von Neumann computers,” said Slessor.
Echoing Feynman’s assessment that nature isn’t classical and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you better make it quantum mechanical, Slessor said that quantum will therefore most likely offer advantages in tasks that simulate processes intricately related to quantum mechanics.
“Nature’s quantum, so if you want to solve a natural problem, you better have a quantum computer, which resonates with me on a pretty fundamental level, for things like molecular simulations,” said Slessor. “Obviously, cryptography is such a natural set of mathematics that can be solved by a quantum computer. Some of these things, then, just have to be the application that launches the utilization of quantum computers — which, then, launches the virtuous circle where you get usage, adoption and investment back into the infrastructure and development.”
The company is more than just interested in investing in quantum — it is interested in investing in the success of quantum startups and enabling the quantum ecosystem, Slessor said.
“Again, because of the nascent nature of quantum computing, one of the interesting ideas is that FormFactor — a company with $700 million-plus in revenue and about $4 billion market cap — can help enable some of the smaller, up-and-coming participants in this market with less capital intensive access models to access our products , so that these customers don’t have to spend significant amounts of their balance sheet to buy a tool that’s going to be used sporadically,” he said.
Easing The Computational Energy Crisis
FormFactor is in the business of helping its customers make devices that compute more efficiently. As a public company, FormFactor also recognizes that its shareholders are more and more interested in the environment, sustainability and good governance.
The company is intrigued by quantum computing as one of the tools that could help solve this computational energy crisis and promote sustainability.
According to Slessor, the amount of energy needed for the world’s data centers is massive. He estimated it would take about 50 Hoover dams to power the world’s data centers. As the need for that energy is increasing each year, there is a growing need for solutions.
“This is a staggering amount of energy,” said Slessor. “Clearly, a lot of that is going to simulations — like molecular simulations — some of it may be going to cryptography and network security. So, if you can do those things more efficiently, it feels like a natural place for some supercomputing applications or digital computing applications to migrate to quantum.”
He added that FormFactor intends to be part of the future of efficient computing, no matter what the blend of platforms, technologies and systems.
“As we think about the future of supercomputing — and as how we participate in that future as one of the suppliers — making sure that data centers, in general, and computation, in general, can become more efficient is part of our motivation here,” said Slessor.