CHELMSFORD, MA – TO ADAPT AN old saying to a new technology, it's getting so you can't tell the players without a program. There's an on-going frenzy of mergers and partnerships within the ranks of semiconductor equipment makers. And that could have a large impact on contamination control in the semiconductor, disk drive, flat panel and biotech industries.
In July, Brooks Automation Inc. (Chelmsford, MA) announced it was buying Infab from Jenoptik AG. This is on top of the recent acquisition of Domain Manufacturing Corp., Smart Machines Inc. and Korean-based Hanyon Technology. For Brooks, all of these acquisitions have one root cause.
“More and more, customers are asking for an integrated solution. And the reason they need to do that is because their process windows are getting smaller,” explains John Biasi, director of strategic planning and business development at Brooks Automation.
In addressing this problem, Biasi says that Brooks believed a traditional approach would not work. As a fab automation vendor, Brooks supplies vacuum and atmospheric robots, cluster tool platforms and modules. In the past, process optimization and contamination control focused on specific process areas within a fab, such as chemical mechanical polishing (CMP) or photolithography. But, according to Biasi, such point optimizations for both process and contamination control have reached their limits.
“Now a lot of the optimization comes across several steps. I've got to get my CVD, CMP and photo playing nicely together, and then I've got to make it work with etch. Because the combination is where the yield gains are to be had,” observes Biasi.
The cleanroom-compatible Fanuc Robotics LR Mate 100i robot transfers standard mechanical interfaces to and from the Shuttleworth conveyor and the Terra Universal stocker. The three companies are working in partnership.
This holistic approach to automation equipment and software solutions has to include information not previously recorded. Engineering lots, for example, can be the source of undetected copper cross-contamination because engineering runs may not be tracked by inventory management systems. Biasi notes that the process tools themselves contain a wealth of information, which can be unlocked with the right combination of software and hardware. Developing such an integrated solution is what's guiding Brooks in its acquisition spree.
At Fanuc Robotics North America, Inc. (Rochester Hills, MN), they're also working on integration. But Fanuc is doing so through partnering. An example of this is its joint development, along with Terra Universal and Shuttleworth, of an integrated automated stocker and delivery system.
According to Joe Portelli, electronics industry manager of Fanuc, there were several reasons for this approach. In general, Fanuc prefers to operate as a partner, and does so for a number of system integrators in several industries. But, just as importantly, in this case the three companies' products are complementary. Fanuc supplied the clean-room robot, Terra Universal the stocker, and Shuttleworth the vertical conveyor. The result is a system that has a variety of cleanroom certifications, up to Class 1. But while the system debuted at a semiconductor trade show, the partners don't see it as useful only in semiconductor cleanrooms.
The Fanuc Robotics/Terra Universal/Shuttleworth automated stock retrieval system is the result of a partnership between the three companies.
“You can store many things in a stocker. Whether it's semiconductor wafers, hard disks, or electronic components; even pharmaceuticals, or blood samples,” remarks Portelli.
To date, there's been no announcement concerning other possible products and applications. But the companies continue to look at opportunities.
At PRI Automation, Inc. (Billerica, MA), there's been a mixture of both acquisition and partnering. That's true for most companies, but in PRI's case, examples of both approaches came within a few months of each other. In March, PRI bought Promis Systems Corporation Ltd., a leading developer of Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) software for semiconductor and precision electronics manufacturers. In July, PRI announced a development effort with Motion Engineering Inc. to produce a new tool automation controller.
Besides customer demands, this trend is rooted in the nature of the equipment industry and the realities of semiconductor manufacturing. John Schuler, manager for equipment programs in the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI) statistics department (Mountain View, CA), notes that the semiconductor equipment industry is characterized by many smaller companies. Thanks to such innovations as the internet, these small companies can offer remote support and other services that before were only available from larger firms. What these smaller companies provide is a unique capability, but what they need is a partner to offer a complete solution.
For that reason alone, Schuler looks for this trend toward merger, acquisition, or partnerships to continue. However, there are also technical reasons for the trend to actually accelerate.
“First, the move to 300-mm wafers requires the use of robotics, and therefore, a high software content. And that's why equipment vendors are going to purchase software companies, especially small specialist companies, to ensure integration. Then with the line widths shrinking, you've got a lot more complexity in terms of instrumentation, measurement, and also machine automation,” says Schuler.
Others agree the trend will gain momentum. Portelli of Fanuc says that a fab-wide approach to tooling and automation will become more important. At the same time, few equipment vendors have the expertise in-house to produce an integrated solution.
As Portelli says, “There's going to have to be an alliance between companies that are the experts in their field. And that's because of two things. It's good business and the best way to minimize cost.”
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