June 13, 2012 -- The ConFab, Solid State Technology’s invitation-only meeting of the semiconductor industry, hosts sessions on the semiconductor industry’s blockbuster topics impacting advance technology manufacturing, such as the transition to 450mm wafers and the increasing importance of 3D integration and advanced packaging. But this year, the conference also allocated time to a discussion revolving around legacy manufacturing. Unlike finFETs and 450mm wafer fab, the challenges faced by mature production facilities are seldom in the headlines. However, as Sanjay Rajguru, director at SEMATECH/ISMI, pointed out, over half of the current fab capacity comes from facilities that are more than 10 years old.
The challenges faced by older production facilities include equipment obsolescence; skills obsolescence; availability of parts, software, and support; and equipment capability extension and tool re-use. Maintaining “More than Moore” fabs is a major concern to semiconductor manufacturers as these operations reach 20 or even 30 years old.
At the ConFab 2012 Executive Roundtable, representatives from Sematech/ISMI, IDMs, OEMs, equipment dealers, and industry consultants gathered to have an open discussion on concerns, roadblocks, and possible solutions.
ISMI has spent over a year looking at the problems fabs are encountering due to obsolescence. The issues are not limited to equipment. Fab operators are finding it difficult to obtain qualified parts through the traditional supply chain. Many of the field service support staff with 200mm and older wafer experience are retiring or moving on to more advanced equipment areas. There are also situations being reported of discontinued materials. In some cases, new materials mean re-qualifying the whole process.
One of the first questions brought to the table was what is going on in the supply chain? The main issue is who’s going to do what? What role does the OEM play when a tool needs maintenance or a replacement part? Most fab operators contact the OEM first. If the OEM no longer provides full support for that tool or part, what options does the fab have available?
Of the OEMs in the room, the problem of obsolete parts ranged from ‘It’s becoming a major issue’ to ‘It’s a nuisance’ to ‘We do not have a problem’. In addition to obsolete parts, other problems included missing support on software and availability of schematics.
Many IDMs with legacy fabs support their own machine shops. They can build their own parts or they have the capability to use third-party suppliers. Traditionally, handling systems, chillers, and pumps could be repaired internally but even these parts are becoming a problem. Even with internal resources, some of these parts are becoming harder to repair or replace.
IDMs have implemented several measures to meet their growing needs. To address the lack of technical knowledge, companies are holding their own training classes. Retired field service technicians are coming out of retirement to teach classes in order to pass on their knowledge base. Good lines of communication between IDM and OEM are essential. Some companies are using ‘communities’ such as ISMI and FOA (Fab Owners Association) to share information. To help out with parts replacement, the FOA has approximately 22 members and these member companies maintain a ‘common stock room’ to help each other in times of need.
What are some of the challenges providing continuous support?
Consolidation amongst equipment companies has created challenges in keeping up with all the types of equipment that are installed. Several companies no longer exist but the equipment is still being used and the IDMs expect OEMs to continue to support those tools even though the original vendor no longer exists. There are some tools that maintain a very small installed base but require a very high number of parts. One part may be consumed only once every three to four years. It is difficult to serve a customer who calls once every 2-3 years and needs only one part. There could be 500 known parts, 70 are obtainable, 430 require research. It is not cost effective for the OEM to maintain detailed information on every part.
What can the OEMs do to help?
As previously mentioned, open lines of communication are very helpful. How are OEM’s notifying customers about EOL (end of life) parts? Mass emails do not always work. How can the notification process be improved? How far back can an OEM go and still manage the system?
Some OEMs have programs to support legacy tools. An analysis is usually done to determine what is a cost-effective solution. That is compared to an open market alternative. Many customers are finding third party sources offering lower priced solutions.
OEMs do have ‘certified’ programs for those companies that are willing to pay a nominal fee in order to deal in qualified parts and service. But the industry cycles are hard on everyone. Some of the third party relationships do not last. It is difficult to find reliable, qualified partners.
Some OEMs offer a help line to address quick turnaround inquiries. TSIA (Technical Services Industry Association) provides studies on cost of delivery services in a technology environment. There are several options including onsite, email, chat rooms, and remote.
There were many topics that were not covered in the hour and a half allocated for this session. But the ConFab roundtable on legacy fab issues opened the door for further action and discussion. A better understanding of the costs, impact and positions from all players in the supply chain will help make the whole supply chain more effective and prosperous for all participants.
Bill Ross is a project manager at ISMI. Watch a video interview with him from The ConFab 2012.
Joanne Itow is Managing Director, Manufacturing for Semico Research.