The semiconductor industry handles increasing complexity hand in hand across many tech companies
The economic specialization on the production of distinct goods and services is one of the core pillars in Adam Smith’s theory of the free market. The semiconductor industry has driven this provision to perfection. While companies like Apple design chips and architecture for their notebooks and mobile phones, the production is often outsourced to companies like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). They specialize in efficiently running chip fabs with highly automated production lines as supplied by semiconductor equipment manufacturers. The motivation is easy to understand: The chip production process is very complex, capital-intense, and requires a lot of specialized knowledge on each and every detail.
A semiconductor fab can cost between 4-5 billion dollars and it needs to run 24/7. It requires a cleanroom environment containing 1000 times fewer airborne particles than an already very clean hospital surgery room. Within the cleanroom, highly automated production machinery of utmost cleanliness is lined up. The major manufacturing steps take place under a vacuum atmosphere, and the wafers need to be automatically transferred between different vacuum chambers to run through the whole production. The complete process from start to end often takes more than 1000 steps and up to three and more months. For every step, the process and environment control are crucial. No company in the world would be able to deal with this solely based on in-house know-how.
But there is another reason for the deep value chain in the semiconductor industry: In the recent two decades, the sales market for semiconductor chips has emerged from a specialized demand of computer or phone components toward a generic demand across all industries. It is also evident from the industry-wide outcry on the chip shortage after the Covid crisis in 2021. This change in demand comes with challenges: While some Industry 4.0 applications require simple, low-cost chips for a few smart functions, deep learning algorithms in AI applications rely on the most advanced chip technology. Furthermore, every year novel functional semiconductor devices, such as LEDs, solar cells, or sensors are launched on the market. Hence, semiconductor manufacturing equipment suppliers need to cover a significantly higher variety of production processes, each of which becoming more sophisticated and specialized. This results in a diverse product catalog from high-end Extreme-UV (EUV) lithography machinery for the production of the latest 5nm node chips to intricate process equipment for high-end integrated circuits, such as NAND flash and DRAM.
VAT helps semiconductor equipment manufacturers to handle the increased complexity
VAT is a long-standing supplier of vacuum components and has served semiconductor equipment manufacturers for many years. “Foreseeing the trend of increasing complexity of semiconductor production lines, we have established partnerships with OEMs to support their strive for the perfect production equipment. Instead of supplying solely single components, e.g. UHV valves or edge-welded bellows, VAT more and more brings in its vacuum know-how by delivering complete vacuum systems or assembled functional groups to the market,” explains VAT product manager Michael Lamprecht. “Examples are complete load-lock and transfer chambers as well as selected process chambers including wafer handling systems, gas injection and venting systems.”
None of these products are standard components but all were adapted to the specific specification of the OEMs. The task of forward integration came with several challenges: The products are becoming larger and more complex. In addition, the stringent production equipment requirements laid out by the OEMs require extensive qualification testing and production within a controlled environment. For this reason, VAT has made significant investments into larger cleanroom production facilities and testing environments in recent years.
The investments paid off. “Over the years, we have established very trustful relationships with our customers in the semiconductor business. By now, we recognize a highly increased demand to supply more advanced plug & play functional systems instead of just single components. With VAT taking over part of the development and production burden, our customers’ engineers can focus on the development, assembly, and commissioning of the complete production line. Still, they keep their intellectual property by maintaining control over the complex interplay between the distinct subsystems,” knows Michael Lamprecht.
VAT is the technology partner for vacuum systems in the growing semiconductor industry
The demand for semiconductor devices with increasingly diversified specifications will remain high in the upcoming decade. Due to the resulting complex production processes, ramping up efficient production lines while maintaining progress on the semiconductor functionality will require the whole industry to work together. VAT has positioned its vacuum products at the core of the semiconductor production processes and will serve OEMs as an active technology partner and system integrator now and in the future. “It is an inspiring and fast-paced industry with high growth rates, and we consider the industry as a major business field for us, considering the digitization era to be still ahead,” summarizes Michael Lamprecht. Even more important, the increased share of tier-suppliers in the value chain serves as a blueprint for other industries. “We recognize an increased demand for specialized vacuum systems, e.g. for vacuum deposition processes, in science and other industries, too. Here, we can efficiently bring in our experience in forward integration from the semiconductor market.”