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Equipment used in a Warehouse Harlow Essex

Demand for legacy tools remains strong, but the supply of used platforms is drying up, prompting some suppliers to build new.

The law of supply and demand is holding true in the market for equipment capable of processing 200mm and smaller wafers. Over the past few years, the brisk production of sensors, MEMS, power ICs and other devices which do not require leading-edge processes, has resulted in rising demand for 200mm tools.

For nearly a decade, that market has been synonymous with "used" or "refurbished" equipment, and indeed the vast majority of 200mm platforms sold are refurbished, usually with some development or re-engineering to modernize them. While many equipment OEMs have sold or transferred all or part of their legacy equipment operations to third-party manufacturers, some continue to build and sell many of their own 200mm products.

Increasingly, however, Applied Materials is making more brand-new 200mm equipment to keep customers supplied with the tools they need, according to Cody Harlow, a director at the company’s Applied Global Services manufacturing operation in Austin, Texas.

One of Harlow’s responsibilities is scouring the world for the 200mm equipment no longer needed by chip manufacturers. These "cores" are taken apart and rebuilt at the Austin manufacturing facility, and increasingly, are being fitted with new chambers capable of the more contemporary deposition, etch, and other processes required by customers. Often, refurbished cores are also updated with software and other upgrades, resulting from Applied’s continued 200mm development initiatives to enable more sophisticated processing capabilities.

Cody Harlow, Applied Materials Director of AGS Manufacturing Operations at the company’s Austin, TX facility.

During the past decade, the largest chip makers in both the microprocessor and memory arenas have closed the majority of their 200mm wafer fabs. A virtuous cycle ensued, with large chipmakers putting "a steady stream of tools" on the market, making it possible to give these tools "a new lease on life, " Harlow said.

A few years ago, as Applied experienced a growing demand for 200mm tools—fuelled by growth in emerging technology applications—the company began stocking its warehouses with platforms that were on the market at the time. That stockpile has helped ease the supply crunch, Harlow said.

Market Pull from Smartphones

Demand for 200mm equipment continues to be particularly strong from both IDMs and foundries producing components used in smart phones, including wireless communications ICs and filters. Market research firm IC Insights (Scottsdale, Arizona) sees a continuing shift away from a PC-centric chip industry to one focused on supplying mobile systems. Cellphone IC revenues are projected to grow by a CAGR of 8.7% between 2013 and 2018. Many companies serving this market continue to expand capacity at their 200mm fabs. Other companies which use 150mm and smaller-diameter gallium arsenide substrates to produce amplifiers and other communications ICs are expanding fab capacity as well.

And soon to come on strong are the myriad sources of demand from the Internet of Things (IoT), where IC Insights sees a CAGR of 22.3% during the 2013 - 2018 period.

More-Than-Moore Extensions

Many of those solutions will be made on 200mm wafers, with improved processes optimized for low power consumption.

Kevin Yang, director of product management at GLOBALFOUNDRIES in Singapore, said that IoT and wearable devices are driving ultra-low-power extensions to several mature technology nodes. For GLOBALFOUNDRIES, its product portfolio includes ultra-low power offerings spanning from 180nm down to the very latest process: the 14nm LPP process, based on a FinFET architecture.

"For mature nodes, we are constantly innovating with a 'More-than-Moore' approach by adding extensions such as analog, power management, radio frequency, and embedded non-volatile memory, as well as ultra-low-leakage/ultra-low power and MEMS, " Yang said.

The increasing demand from smartphones, wearables, and the IoT has coincided with tight supplies of used 200mm equipment. According to Harlow, "The memory fabs always had 200mm equipment to sell, but it is not there anymore. The dynamic we are seeing right now is that the availability of used equipment on the market is drying up. There is definitely a shortage of supply on the market."

Finding Tools To Buy

As the largest equipment refurbisher, Applied Materials often gets the first call from chipmakers and equipment brokers which have used tools to sell. "I always want to be the guy they call first, " Harlow said. “And I don’t want to give the wrong impression—we are buying cores. But there is just not ample equipment to purchase right now. If in past years there were a hundred cores of any tool type or configuration for sale out there, today there might be just five or ten—and many of those might be non-standard designs which require reconfiguration to meet today’s needs.

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