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The Last Word

Partnerships at Legacy and Leading-Edge Fabs

By David Lammers

No one ever said life is easy, and that includes managing semiconductor fabs. But going through life with a good partner can make the journey better. Two speakers at the 2017 Advanced Process Control (APC) Conference— Boyd Finlay, a principal member of the technical staff of Globalfoundries, and Ernest Adams, principal senior engineer at Cypress Semiconductor—talked about the value of partnerships in keeping fabs at peak efficiency.

Boyd Finlay,

The fabs they described to the APC audience in Austin couldn’t be more different. Finlay is focused on 14nm manufacturing at the Globalfoundries Fab 8 in Malta, New York. Adams works at Fab 25 in Austin, which, over three decades of continuous operation, has changed hands from AMD to Spansion to Cypress.

Finlay was an eloquent defender of equipment engineers (EEs), who are “under enormous pressure in factories today.” These engineers are expected to do heroic levels of failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) and achieve “continuous improvements. They need time to do it, and they don’t have much time,” he said.

Several times, Finlay referred to the need to move from a “transactional” relationship with suppliers, in which certain jobs are completed for a certain amount of money, to more open-ended partnerships where the parties truly work together. “Our factories are not running as smoothly as they need to. We have a lot of issues, and that calls for collaboration. It requires engineers, OEMs, and third parties working together.

We need our industry partners to work in a less transactional environment, in new commercial relationships,” he said.

Describing the challenges of “practical engineering in a complex environment,” Finlay talked about tools that arrive without the right mix of sensors and with data interfaces that aren’t fast enough. “If we have a sensing gap, we have a detection gap, and there are too many gaps.”

Those pressures are likely to increase as leading-edge fabs move to 7nm and 5nm processes, according to Finlay. “We need to raise the bar again. It doesn’t matter who the supplier is, the equipment is not ready,” he said, adding that more needs to be done to enable engineers to control the equipment and ensure equipment health.

Finlay didn’t stop there. Big data, for all its value, can serve to “drown engineers in data” and make their jobs even more difficult. “Data analytics can help, but data analytics cannot replace empirical knowledge,” Finlay said.

Ernest Adams,
Cypress Semiconductor

For a moment, let’s leave Finlay’s ardent search for “unambiguous knowledge” and turn to Ernest Adams, another APC keynote speaker, who helps manage Cypress’s front-end fab east of downtown Austin.

Fab 25’s history deserves a book of its own: its present job is to make programmable system-on-chip and programmable analog; wireless-capable microcontrollers; and power management products.

The design rules at Fab 25 may be “legacy,” bottoming out at 65nm, but the products are sophisticated, nevertheless. Adams detailed the challenges of bringing the fab and its tools into an age of data analytics.

Adams mixed in examples of what it takes to operate process tools “running on a 30-year-old computer” with interface boards that reminded some in the audience of the ancient computers they might have used in high school. And he had a comic’s sense of timing and wry observations.

“How well can the computers tell you what they think the tool is doing? Sometimes, the answer is…not at all. Some tools are just smart enough to tell you, ‘I started.’”

In this mix of the modern and the ancient stand the Cypress equipment engineers who heroically figure out workarounds, based on decades of experience in Fab 25.

“The biggest challenge is finding parts. I cannot stress that enough,” Adams said. In a time of parts shortages and 200mm tool shortages, Adams lauded examples of supplier support. “I cannot say this enough, our suppliers bend over backwards for us. But finding people who understand our challenges is extremely difficult, even on the supply side,” Adams said.

Some suppliers are better than others. “With these legacy tool sets, we work with suppliers [on refurbishment]. Sometimes the tool comes back from a third-party and it is beautiful. Sometimes the tool comes back, and we have to pay the original supplier to get it back to where we need it.”

Listening to Finlay and Adams speak, it struck me that finding partners who can add value, within a fab’s cost budget, requires a combination of risk-taking and trust. It comes down to relationship building: neither promising nor expecting too much, and not violating trust.

David Lammers is an Austin-based technology journalist.