In an agreement that represents a victory of customer relations over traditional rivalries, back-end equipment supplier Kulicke & Soffa will integrate its model 8020 ball bonder into the Autoline factory integration environment developed by Swiss competitor ESEC.
While the 8020 is the only K & S machine currently slated for Autoline integration, Mike Vinson, manager of the K & S Factory Systems Group, said additional tools could well be added. "It's fundamentally based on customer demand - we make an effort to make our machines available for all reasonable situations," he said.
Final testing of the necessary software links was in progress, according to Vinson, with prototype tools slated for delivery last month and production units this month or in September.
While last month's Semicon West show featured some modest co-marketing of the alliance, through posters and demonstrations, there is also the intriguing possibility of more extensive market cooperation. "We have no current plans or arrangements," Vinson said. "But we keep getting questions [about joint marketing and sales efforts], and we do our best to respond."
Franz-Peter Steiner, director of ESEC's Factory Integration Business Unit, called the current deal a starting point, and added, "We don't really know where it might lead us. In the short term, we have customers and requests, and will try to come up with a solution....For the time being, it's an opportunistic approach; if we need to look at how we could cooperate on a business level, we will talk about it. Currently we have very good cooperation on a technical level, to make this fly for the customer."
Neither company would identify the customer whose request prompted the alliance. Steiner commented, "We've had requests from several sides; customers using K & S equipment felt excluded from taking advantage of the benefits of Autoline. We took it seriously when a customer got concrete, and it was fairly easy to arrange."
Between them, K & S and ESEC dominate about half of the assembly equipment market, grappling in die bond, wire bond, and other arenas. The networking and automated materials handling area has been slow to emerge in back-end applications, largely because of the low labor costs in nations with significant packaging and assembly operations, and the diversity of materials and carriers that must be handled. While ESEC has developed the Autoline technology internally, Kulicke & Soffa has pursued a strategy of external relationships. It announced a relationship with automation developer PRI Automation in 1997; as of last summer, that program was still at work on its first installation, at an Amkor facility in The Philippines, and officials admitted that there had been some implementation challenges in the overhead transport system. Vinson noted that K & S has also integrated its tools with the ambitious transport and network scheme developed by Siemens (now Infineon) for its back-end operations.
Steiner pointed out that the deal will not affect competition on the hardware side. "You have to differentiate between K & S as a wire bond supplier, and my business unit [at ESEC] - we're not competitors," he said. "It's not so much two wire bond companies forming an alliance. There will be ongoing competition between the wire bond units." As an open system, Autoline must be accessible to a wide range of equipment, he noted. "We don't want to force the customer to make a choice - they should be able to choose the equipment that fits their needs the best."
While this is certainly true, the deal does have similarities to the recently announced alliance between dry clean supplier Mattson Technology and wet clean company CFM Technologies. In both cases, rivals are putting aside their differences in order to be more responsive, with the assumption that customers will respond favorably to suppliers who bring the best possible solution.