Semicon Southwest: Something old, something new

by Hank Hogan

Although times are tough, stalwarts say it's time to get your 300 mm house in order

AUSTIN, TX—The story from October's Semicon Southwest trade show and conference was no different from most shows that took place over the past two months. There was a bit of fun and games as in years past, yet there was a scattering of empty booths, spots where exhibiting companies had simply failed to appear.

As if the market slowdown wasn't enough, there was a new wrinkle in Austin this year, something that hasn't been experienced in the better part of a decade—or even longer. “We're now at war,” says Stanley Myers, president and CEO of show sponsor SEMI (San Jose, CA) at a press conference on the first day of Semicon Southwest. “Now we have even more uncertainty.”

That doubt could hardly have come at a more inopportune time for the industry.

At the press conference, Myers put current wafer fab utilization at about 75 percent, a full 20 percent down from the peak a year before. The excess capacity, in terms of wafer starts per week, was estimated to be above 350,000, double the figure from the last downturn in 1998.

Figures released just after the show reinforce this picture. The SEMI equipment book-to-bill has trended upward recently, but it's still an anemic 0.65. Just when, or how, the excess wafer capacity will be worked off was not something Myers cared to predict.

The SEMI book-to-bill is a ratio of three-month moving average bookings to three-month moving average shipments for the North American semiconductor equipment industry. Shipments and bookings figures are in millions of U.S. dollars.
Click here to enlarge image

Once again, there were plenty of 300 mm tools and associated activities on display. Bob Helms, president and CEO of International SEMATECH (Austin, TX), pointed to 300 mm, virtual diagnostics, and the electronic fab as being key over the next five years. That, he said, was the only way the industry could maintain its historic 25 percent reduction in cost per year per function. That's quite different than in times past, when process linewidth changes drove this decrease.

Helms even suggested the current slowdown might be a time to get everything in order before the onslaught of larger wafer sizes—and the associated contamination control issues—begins in earnest. “As we come out of the cycle, there's going to be a real drive to do that,” says Helms concerning 300 mm processing.

As for the exhibitors, there was a little fear, some nostalgia and a small amount of hope. Some exhibitors, not expecting much, showed up in order to reassure customers that the vendor was still in business. Others were a bit more optimistic.

“There was a big show here last year,” said Hans Foraker, vice president of Hepatech Clean Room Services Inc. (Atlanta, GA). He reported that Hepatech, which specializes in microcontamination control cleaning of cleanrooms, has seen 30 percent growth over the past year. According to Foraker, this has largely been due to customer referrals. The company operates only within the United States, ranging from the East Coast to Texas.

For companies playing in the contamination control segment of the semiconductor industry, the current situation hasn't changed the overall dynamic of the market. Worklon (Seminole, FL), for instance, makes cleanroom garments for facilities that range from ISO Class 3 (Class 1) and up. Pamela George, company president, reported that cost matters more now than ever, but the economic interaction between her company and the rest of the industry hasn't changed. “We're usually one of the last ones to be hit, and we're one of the last to go up,” says George.


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.