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Charlie Pappis: Serving Up A Better Outcome

Success in today’s semiconductor industry goes beyond just keeping the fab running—it takes faster ramps and higher yields at lower costs. Charlie Pappis, group vice president and general manager of Applied Global Services (AGS), contends that the service model has evolved as well, from providing traditional maintenance, parts and repair services to an expanded role as a strategic customer partner.

In a recent interview with Nanochip Fab Solutions (NFS), Pappis, a 27-year veteran of Applied Materials and head of AGS for the last four years, discussed customers’ increasingly sophisticated support needs and what that means for his large service organization.

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NFS: You’ve said that a changing semiconductor industry requires service providers to provide different types of support than before. Can you elaborate?

Pappis: The service business used to be driven by the need to keep systems up and running: identifying mechanical problems, adjusting hardware, replacing parts and so forth. Equipment reliability isn’t our customers’ main service need anymore—the reliability of electromechanical systems is much greater than it used to be. What’s driving everything now is vastly increasing process complexity and the high costs that come with not getting it done right or not doing it fast enough. Service today is about fine-tuning processes for optimum performance and managing on-board technology so customers can predict and prevent problems before they impact device performance and yield. And that takes a much more advanced service model that integrates state-of-the-art technologies, expanded service staff expertise, and an unprecedented level of collaboration between the customer and the OEM.

There will be more radical technological change in our industry in the next five years than over the past 15, because scaling alone can no longer keep us on pace with Moore’s Law. You can see it starting to happen already—new architectures like Fin-FETS and 3D structures, an explosion of new materials into what were relatively stable gate and interconnect stacks—all of this requires more process steps, much narrower process windows, many more interacting variables, and higher capital costs.

Now, it certainly isn’t easy to address these issues, so what that means for service providers like AGS is that we must be able to support customers as a high-level, trusted partner. We need to be able to help them solve their highest-value problems—the ones with the greatest impact on the performance and yield of the devices they make—so that, for example, they can successfully ramp a megafab to run the most aggressive nodes at the right yield, the right cost, the right quality and with the right cycle times. It’s critical for the customer’s success to be able to do that, and when you come down to it, that’s really what a modern service organization like AGS has to focus on: enabling the customer’s success, helping them achieve dramatically better results with our equipment. So we’re evolving in order to do that more effectively.

NFS: That’s a huge challenge. How are you going about it?

Pappis: It’s really a three-part strategy. Trust is bedrock. It underpins all our relationships with customers. The complexity and sensitivity of issues impacting device performance and yield mean we have to stay more closely connected to the customer than ever. You can’t do that without a solid foundation of trust. It’s something we always work to build on, because while it’s one thing to say we are willing to collaborate with customers to solve their highest-stakes problems, it’s another to actually deliver on the promise.

Trust gets us an invitation to the table. Once we’re there, being competitive on cost and quality are absolute prerequisites. Our customers have choices, so we need to define competitiveness the same way they do. In a way, it’s like running a race where there’s no finish line. The job is never done because we’re always trying to make further improvements in what we offer.

If we’ve proven we can be trusted to deliver on the basics of cost and quality, the door opens for us to work at higher levels to meet a customer’s most important device-performance and yield challenges. It’s there that I think AGS can demonstrate real innovation and leadership to help customers reach their goals.

NFS: What does that mean for your organization on a practical, day-to-day level?

Pappis: Cost savings extend beyond parts, of course. Our new iSYS controller for the subfab is designed to give customers a very fast payback via electricity and fuel savings for abatement. In many cases the payback period is two years, and for those located in areas of the world where electricity is incredibly expensive, payback is one year or even less.

There are also things we can do to help customers improve their technical performance—in process capability, in defect performance, which can also improve uptime and lower cost. Our Lava Coat II technology is a good example. We developed it for our PVD chambers to reduce the frequency of service intervals and lower the defect densities in the chamber, which can have a significant impact on yield. This coating can reduce defect levels by 25% and boost mean time between cleans by up to 1.5x. While that may not sound like much, consider that whenever you take a PVD chamber out of production, you have to vent it to do any kind of a clean or a kit change. Then you have to recover it to the same performance levels, so it becomes a 24- to 72-hour service event. If you can increase the time you’re running product by 1.5x before you have to do a clean, and if you can also reduce the overall defect level during that run by 25%, there’s a huge productivity gain. These are the kinds of services that are true value adds for our customers, and they keep asking for more of them.

Our goal is to have customers always be willing to give us a “first look and a last chance.” That’s really critical for us, and what’s key to making it happen is our willingness to listen openly to what a customer is saying, and then provide the relevant technologies, tools, people and whatever other resources are required—on whatever basis makes the most sense—given a customer’s specific situation.

NFS: But what gives you the ability to handle customers’ highest-level problems? How are you different from other service providers?

Pappis: We’re different in almost every way that counts! First of all we have unparalleled tool knowledge across a broad portfolio of process technologies. Second, AGS is at work every day in production environments in the semiconductor, solar and display areas supporting an installed base of about 30,000 Applied Materials tools. Customers typically run these machines for 20 to 25 years, and so every time Applied has shipped a tool, for the following two decades we have had recurring opportunities to help the customer get the best possible result out of their capital asset, and to learn a great deal from that experience.

Finally, what really drives our responsiveness when it comes to difficult problems such as defects and particles is AGS’s 3000-strong customer engineering (CE) team. Today’s fabs generate a flood of process- and equipment-related data that can be used to optimize processes and increase yields. Our CEs are receiving extensive training in IT functionality and data manipulation so they can effectively interpret the trove of data coming from software-based monitoring and control systems, sensors, and other computer-driven equipment.

NFS: Can you give us an example of how better data analysis is paying off for customers?

Pappis: Data analysis and the use of appropriate sensors and control systems are key to helping customers understand the health of the tool and provide clues that make it possible to predict and prevent problems. One example that comes to mind has to do with an etch chamber. One of the things we typically look at is backside helium pressure. But what does that really tell us? Often when there’s a spike in pressure it is in fact a backside helium fault, so before we were able to characterize these chambers the way we can now, we always assumed that was the problem and we would routinely vent the chamber and start maintenance.

However, at one customer site, when we tied these chambers into Applied’s E3 factory automation software environment, we found that not all backside helium pressure events are created equal! Some of them can be handled without actually having to vent the chamber. Others just amount to the normal wear pattern of the e-chuck. Sometimes they mean there’s a backside particle or a placement error we can handle just by calibrating the robot. This is a case where we can help the customer manage a tool in production much more efficiently by characterizing things better and putting FDC models in place.

With 30,000 machines installed, we are learning faster than anyone how important accurate data analysis is, and we’re taking this capability across the installed base. For example, when our FabVantage consultants begin a customer engagement, they do a deep discovery to determine the critical issues holding the customer back in terms of cycle time, productivity, yield, and so forth. No two customers have the same needs, and even the same customer may have very different needs and priorities at different times and locations. Therefore, what we do is never ‘one-size-fits-all.’ What we really consider business as usual is to customize cost- and quality-competitive solutions to meet the exact needs of a particular fab at a given time.

NFS: What do you consider to be among the most difficult things customers are trying to do today?

Pappis: A number of our customers are grappling with the myriad issues involved with ramping these huge fabs: fabs designed for 60,000, 80,000 or even 100,000 wafer starts per month at 28 nanometers or other advanced nodes. Sure, they may have yield on pilot lots, they may have yield when they’re running a couple thousand wafers a month, but now they have to take that production to a level ten times higher! And what we’re finding is, they haven’t solved all of the problems that come with 7x24 operation at 60,000 wafers a month.

We have a number of FabVantage consulting agreements where we’re actually helping customers deal with some of these challenges. Consultants use a disciplined discovery process and tap into the Applied knowledge base, then combine it with the customer’s own data to give a more complete picture of what’s happening with the customer’s tool or line. Our customers certainly have the ability to solve these problems on their own. But with help from the FabVantage team they can identify the problem—and the solution—faster. And in the process, they often uncover opportunities for additional improvements as well.

NFS: You talk about the blend of technology and the know-how of the service team. Where does the technology come in?

Pappis: Events like arcing and process excursions can have a huge detrimental effect on device performance and yields, and so the ability to predict and prevent them before they happen gives customers a major competitive advantage. Our software packages and new TechEdge service offerings combine advanced software and analytics tools with experts who have special training in yield management, data analysis and factoryfloor dynamics. The result is a map of what’s happening with the tool that helps pinpoint potential problems. This is a capability all our customers can benefit from, whether they are producing at the latest technology node on 300mm wafers or making analog, power, sensor, MEMS and other products on 200mm wafers.

For example, TechEdge Prizm, for use with Applied CD-SEM tools in 300mm environments, is very helpful in chamber- and fleet matching. We often find customers have tied their critical-dimension data to just one lithography tool, but this enables all the customer’s CD-SEMs to be precisely matched so they can get an entire tool fleet running in such a way that an expensive lithography tool wouldn’t ever become a bottleneck.

Another example is Applied E3 software. It brings high levels of predictability and performance by helping to pose and answer questions like, which is the crucial data to be tracking? Is it one sensor or a combination? Are FDC data rates fast enough to capture subtle but meaningful changes? Are control limits effective? Things may be running well, but could they run even better?

NFS: Okay, but don’t customers have concerns about letting an outside organization such as AGS become so deeply immersed in their proprietary data?

Pappis: Sharing of customer data and intellectual property is a huge concern for all of us in this industry, customers and suppliers alike. It’s the lifeblood of our businesses. At a time when there is greater collaboration than ever, protecting the data we exchange is a critical priority. In addition to our stringent IP handling practices and employee certification processes, the simplest way to secure customer data is to ensure that it stays on the customer site.

AGS installs dedicated computers at customer facilities that have no external connections. Only the data the customer defines and allows AGS to access is drawn. We tell the customer beforehand what we need and the customer either allows it or disallows it. At the tool level, we use a parallel port to access the very same data the customer is accessing and nothing else.

Fundamentally, it comes down to forging relationships with customers that are built on mutual trust. It’s in the best interests of both of us to carefully handle the confidential information we share.

NFS: Charlie, any final thoughts?

Pappis: It’s ironic that the products our tools help to create are in turn enabling some of the most exciting service solutions of the last decade or more. Sensors and controllers, combined with software, networks, and modeling and simulation methods, are opening the door to an amazing array of service offerings that go well beyond traditional equipment maintenance practices.

Our attitude is that AGS exists solely to enable customer success, and as the complexity of fab operations increases, AGS will evolve in lockstep with customers. We are, and always will be, a trustworthy and capable partner dedicated to helping customers uncover and solve even their most difficult production challenges.

NFS: Thank you for your time.