Equipment guys are in the know

Equipment guys are in the knowThe Semicon Europa Show organised by SEMI is the place to be to feel the pulse of the chip industry. David Manners reports
If you want to know what’s happening in the semiconductor industry ask the semiconductor production equipment industry. The equipment people know whether and where the device manufacturers are spending their money – and that’s the key to understanding hearts and minds.
So the best place to find out about the semiconductor industry was at last week’s Semicon Europa Show organised by the industry’s trade association SEMI (Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International) in Munich.
“There’s lots of activity going on with engineers trying to find out exactly what’s wanted, testing it, certifying it and getting all the work done before the starting gun fires. The delay is at the top level with senior management trying to decide what to do: build a new fab, re-equip an old fab or go to a foundry. Meanwhile engineers are trying to get top management to invest. Senior management is being backed up against a wall – told either to invest or go out of business,” reckoned Don Baumann, president of SEZ.
“There are very few new fabs but customers are buying for expansion,” said Joseph Nava, senior vice president at Ultratech, a theme that was repeated by others.
“People are looking at capacity increases but very, very carefully. They’re not building new fabs but they’re expanding capacity at existing ones,” said Robert Kane, president of Asyst Europe. At Keithley Instruments, John Bickley, director of marketing and sales, said: “There’s two new fabs in Taiwan but, for the rest, it’s re-equipping old fabs rather than going for green field sites. We started to see an increase in customer interest in Q4 which translated into orders in Q1. We’re back to 1997 levels of business.”
“We’re not quite back to 1997 levels of business,” said Shaun Wilson, director of product marketing at Eaton’s implant systems division, “but Q1 was good with a book-to-bill better than 1. We’ll make a very nice profit this year.”
Last year Eaton’s semiconductor equipment sales declined by 42 per cent for a loss of $80m on sales of $267m and over 1000 lay-offs were announced.
“Our Q1 book-to-bill was 1.39,” said Rodney Griffiths, president of Applied Materials Europe, “our Q2 results will be exciting. Orders are back everywhere except for Japan which is slow.”
Griffiths’ optimism was exceptional. Others were saying only that decline had halted and that they were hoping that technology changes would kick-start orders from device manufacturers not wanting to become uncompetitive.
Examples of such technology changes are 300mm, further automation, Rambus and copper interconnect. “300mm will dictate automated wafer handling because you’re not going to get enough weightlifters to carry the boats around,” said Jeremy Read, managing director of Consilium which makes the software which links and monitors equipment inside fabs.
“Building a 200mm factory is an investment in history,” said Andreas von Zitzewicz, chief operating officer of Infineon Technologies which owns the world’s only 300mm production line. But no one else in Munich seemed to expect an early adoption of 300mm.
Copper is another potential catalyst to kick-start equipment sales. At the moment only IBM and Motorola have copper production but, according to Ashok Sinha, president of Applied Materials’ metal deposition group: “As well as IBM and Motorola twelve other companies have the capability to make copper interconnect chips and, by the end of this year, there could be twenty manufacturers with a limited capability in copper.” Among those who Sinha expects to see making copper interconnect ICs this year are: Hitachi, Toshiba, Fujitsu and AMD.
Rambus is another change which could stimulate equipment orders – principally in the test area – but many think it could take longer to happen than expected.
“Test is one of the things that has held up Rambus. The frequencies are testing the laws of physics – involving such small timeframes that any noise, any impedance mismatch, any reflection leads to a degradation in test performance,” said Gordon Borneman, technical marketing manager for Teradyne.
Other leading test houses also pointed to problems with Rambus. “I believe that by 2002 the majority of DRAMs will be Rambus DRAMs but most of the challenges to make that happen fast are horrendous – front end, packaging as well as test,” said Pascal Rond?, general manager of Hewlett-Packard’s European semiconductor test operation, “one problem is that you can’t test 64 Rambus DRAMs in parallel, you can only do 8. So you either need more testers or you really need to look at your test strategy to see if you can divide time between a Rambus DRAM tester and a synchronous DRAM tester.”
“A lot of the ATE equipment on the market today cannot meet the Rambus spec. People say they can test Rambus but maybe they won’t be able to do it,” said Ruedi Egger of IMS.
“Many semiconductor companies are shifting to PC133. Rambus was dominant but my guess is that other technologies may get some advantage now,” said Gerhard Kessler, senior MD of Advantest.
“All our customers want to go to DDR,” said Christian Ehmer, IBM Microelectronics’ applications manager for central Europe, “DDR’s much easier to handle and, with 64bit wide PC133 DDR, you can get bandwidth higher than Rambus.”
“Rambus,” quipped Ulrich Schumacher, president and ceo of Infineon Technologies, “is a wonderful invention for slowing the growth of Intel.”
Rambus, copper, automation, 300mm – maybe even an upturn on the device side – will happen to kick-start equipment sales. But no one knows when.


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