A Short Order Chip Chef

For defense contractors and other companies that buy chips in small volumes--or for product-development teams on a deadline--Chip Express Corp. can be a lifesaver. The Santa Clara (Calif.) company can produce chips one at a time, although it prefers to make at least 10 copies. "We're bringing a machine-shop approach to making chips," says President Zvi Or-Bach.

The cost? About $8,000 for the first two chips, with discounts for longer runs. But for a cash-strapped startup, Or-Bach will do the first chip free.

Chip Express is also fast. For National Semiconductor Corp., it once came through with a handful of chips in two days, vs. four weeks for National's own chipmaking operation.

CROSSBAR NETWORK. The secret is a miniature chip plant not much bigger than a desk--and special silicon wafers with windows, from Tower Semiconductor Ltd. The wafers have metal circuit lines running one way on the surface, while tiny windows peer down on more lines underneath, at right angles. So each chip-to-be is a massive crossbar network. To turn this grid into a circuit, a special laser selectively burns through metal lines on both layers--often making several million cuts, at 20,000 per second.

Privately owned Chip Express says 1995 sales were $18 million, almost double the year before. Its popularity is understandable. "Being first to market can spell the difference between healthy margins and mediocre profits," says Or-Bach. That could make $8,000 for the first two chips look like a steal.

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