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At Your Service

An Interview with Seehack Foo

Nanochip Staff


Seehack Foo, vice president of the Applied Global Services (AGS) Semiconductor Service and Components group, defines ”service” as doing what it takes to enable customers’ success with their Applied Materials equipment. A 27-year veteran of the semiconductor industry, Foo was formerly vice president of Service Operations at KLA-Tencor. He spoke recently with Nanochip Fab Solutions (NFS) about our customers’ service needs and what he has in mind for AGS’s service and spare parts offerings.


NFS: You joined Applied in this role at the beginning of the year. How’s it going? What have been your key priorities?

Foo: Coming into Applied has been an extraordinary experience— at times a bit daunting, but mostly exhilarating, energizing. There is so much here at Applied: incredibly smart people, spread out across the globe, and an unbelievably rich and diverse product and technology portfolio. In semiconductors alone, Applied has multiple offerings in nearly a dozen different technology areas, and our service organization—comprising more than 3,000 customer engineers [CEs] and 100 spares depots—supports all of them.

Applied is an industry leader with strong, established relationships with customers, and this is an exciting time to be in the service business. The complexities of chip manufacturing and the staggering costs of production facilities challenge our customers more than ever to accelerate and maximize yield, reduce cost and improve productivity. In particular, with the introduction of FinFET technologies and V-NAND, there are many new challenges that we can address with our service offerings. Our service model is evolving significantly to one that extends well beyond traditional equipment support practices.

Device complexity—new materials, and tight, tight process windows—means customers now look to us for advanced capabilities to monitor and fine-tune processes for optimum performance and more predictive operations. In particular, the introduction of new technologies or node upgrades represent challenges for our customers and this is where we can shorten the cycles of learning. Software-based monitoring and control systems, sensors, data mining and data analytics—especially predictive analytics—are becoming part of our services tool kit, helping us distill data and turn it into actionable information that increases predictability and good wafers out. All of this speaks to the need for a new class of service that helps resolve key customer challenges faster and more effectively.

My focus has been on determining what is needed to take service to this next level; to take a great service organization and make it even better, to deepen our current service offerings, and to offer world-class solutions that customers consistently trust and choose to help them create real value with their Applied Materials equipment. Once the customer buys a tool, our service organization will probably help take care of it in one way or another for the next 15, 20 or more years. So we’ve got to constantly improve our performance to sustain and strengthen relationships with our customers. And we must be prepared to deliver comprehensive, continuously evolving services and spares offerings that help resolve even their most challenging problems—those that impact device performance, yield and cost—at every stage of a product’s life cycle.

NFS: When you speak with customers, what are the main service issues on their minds?

Foo: All customers are working towards faster time to yield, improved and more predictable process performance and lower total cost-per-wafer-out. They are also introducing new manufacturing capabilities like hard mask etch or high-K metal gate that represent different manufacturing challenges as they are rolled out into high-volume manufacturing. At the macro level all customers want the same things from us: fast, responsive expert help and quality parts that make their equipment and operations more productive, boost system performance, and lower their overall production costs. However, it’s difficult to generalize because virtually every customer circumstance in this business is unique in its own way. Customers’ specific concerns lie on a broad spectrum of needs and there’s little room for “one size fits all” solutions.

At one end of the spectrum are customers who have viewed service as an adjunct to in-house resources when problems and maintenance requirements crop up. At the other end are manufacturers who view service more broadly, as a strategic tool that can help them better manage skyrocketing process complexity, time-to-market pressures and fab costs. Increasingly, those customers rely on technology-enabled services in their fabs and from their equipment suppliers for faster resolution of problems that threaten their productivity and costs.

Customers’ business strategies also come into play. In a way, no two customers have the same issues. For example, an IDM making high-performance, cutting edge devices will want to talk about ramping to high yields fast and with minimum output risk. A cutting-edge foundry might have those same concerns about fast ramp, but they want us to help improve yield predictability and output. A memory manufacturer, on the other hand, cares about cost reduction, optimized output and fast cycle time. So does a customer running a 200mm foundry, but they’re also concerned about managing obsolescence and will want to know how we can help them get scarce parts or update their system and process technology. And when we meet with customers making MEMS, power devices, TSVs and so forth, the list of challenges is long and varied—from node and technology transitions to tool and process optimization, equipment OEE and COO, and continuous improvement engineering support.

NFS: You’ve been around this industry for a number of years. How are customer support requirements changing?

Foo: When I first started in this industry, device architectures were much simpler and the service problems were largely related to hardware reliability. We operated for years in a very reactive mode. Today the service model is very different. With so much process complexity and the high costs associated with not resolving problems quickly, customers expect more from their service providers. They rely on advanced software and sensors, extensive libraries of BKMs and engineers specialized in both equipment and process to help detect, classify, diagnose, control, predict and prevent various failure modes that can impact on-wafer results—and also impact cost and productivity.

NFS: How are you preparing your organization to respond to these changing customer support requirements?

Foo: If we want customers to make AGS their first choice when it comes to service, it follows that we must be a trusted, cutting-edge service organization with unique and growing capabilities that bring significant benefits customers can’t readily get elsewhere.

We have made much progress in this direction but more needs to be done. We’re taking a hard look at everything we do—from the kind of service products we offer, to where and how we source parts, to how our organization is structured and deployed around the world. We aim to operate more effectively, offer greater capabilities, or run in ways that are faster, less expensive, and better aligned with the needs of our customers.

Within the past few months we have reorganized the Semiconductor Service and Components group to more directly align service and spares functions with Applied’s semiconductor systems divisions. This will create greater synergy and collaboration among product design, development and support teams and enable us to evolve technically deep service offerings that more holistically address customer needs. As the business units release new products—for example, for ALD—we are developing our service offerings before these products are released to our customers. These are not just basic maintenance procedures. Offerings to deliver fast time to yield and high-volume manufacturing are now being developed in parallel to the product.

Each production technology Applied offers has specific technical nuances, so it is clear that we cannot have a “one size fits all” strategy when it comes to servicing them. Therefore, we’ve formed new, technology-specific service business units (SBUs) that are tied to corresponding product development teams. For example, our CMP SBU works with the CMP systems design group, with shared goals related to new product design, equipment serviceability, CE training, parts specs and sourcing, and performance improvements.

Finally, we have an all-out effort under way to improve our operational efficiency without sacrificing quality so that we can better meet our customers’ needs for services and parts.

NFS: Many customers traditionally have handled their service needs internally. Do you foresee a change in that trend?

Foo: Some customers have very capable in-house resources and handle most of their own support; some customers have relied more heavily on Applied for service. However, as tools and processes grow more complex we see more customers seeking help.

As the OEM, our service personnel are trained by the experts who designed the tools. With more than 30,000 tools installed, we have access to deep, comprehensive data from an exhaustive knowledge base, so we are learning about our tools all the time. We’ve also developed advanced diagnostic tools so we can pinpoint problems faster.

In addition, our product knowledge is always up to date, which among other benefits makes equipment upgrades and modifications that much easier. We provide our service engineers with state-of-the art diagnostics, in-depth training, expert resources and other tools that give them the ability to solve problems more quickly than others can do. And in our industry, there is absolutely no doubt that time is money.

NFS: By necessity, customers are always focused on costs—especially costs for spares. What are you doing to address their concerns?

Foo: First, we have to look at reducing total cost of ownership. Our prices may not always be the lowest, but our ability to reduce costs substantially on an overall basis by increasing device performance, yield and throughput can bring customers tremendous economic benefits by lowering their cost per good wafer out.

That said, we understand the importance of price and availability of parts, consumable components and other necessary items. In order to truly be a trusted supplier for our customers, we must be competitive in this area. A new companywide effort is underway to strengthen Applied’s parts sourcing and qualification capability with a particular emphasis on being located close to the customer. Our goal is to increase our offerings of locally sourced parts, and repair and cleaning services.

NFS: Any parting thoughts, Seehack?

Foo: With every advance in semiconductors—a new node, new materials, new process methods—comes a greater degree of chip manufacturing complexity, whether the challenge is technology, time-to-market or cost. So I would like to see us forge deeper, longer term relationships with customers. The closer collaboration will enable us to better understand and anticipate their needs and deliver support solutions that resolve high-value problems faster.

Our data shows customers are more satisfied with longer term service relationships than with primarily transactional interactions, because their equipment tends to run better and their parts tend to last longer.

Customers also benefit in a number of ways from the advance planning that comes with stable, longer term relationships. Costs are incurred more predictably, service quality and response times can be better, and from the service organization’s point of view it’s a more effective way to plan for customer needs. For example, ensuring parts availability is much easier when customer needs can be anticipated well in advance.

It’s really true that we will succeed only to the extent that we help our customers succeed. Therefore, our success lies in being a trusted partner who helps customers make their operations better and less costly on an ongoing basis, so that they can thrive in their markets. Working together in that way, we will move the industry forward.

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