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Tool Life-Cycle Services Help Customers Make More Money

By Jeremy Read

Customers’ service needs vary dramatically but they all derive from the very same imperative: the need to generate the highest profits as quickly as possible in today’s highly competitive and fast-changing markets.

This holds true for customers running cutting-edge processes who need to produce advanced-performance devices at high yields, and for customers who need to increase output to capitalize on the booming Internet of Things (IoT) market. And it’s equally true for customers who want to generate revenue and reduce costs by ramping new processes quickly, upgrading older tools, and automating factory systems.

We at Applied Global Services (AGS) have spent a great deal of time with customers asking what they truly need from us. What we’ve learned is this: Providing service is how we help customers accelerate their time-to-more money. Our services enable customers to do whatever it is they need to do faster, better and in ways that maximize their business potential and improve their bottom line.

Based on this learning, we’ve changed some of our service practices, realigned our resources, and started offering new services, technologies and collaborations so that we support the full spectrum of our customers’ needs worldwide.

Designing Serviceability

In the early days of this industry, engineers would design a tool, specify the parts, process and operating parameters, and then hand it over to the field service team for installation and life-cycle management. There was little consideration given to tool serviceability or integration issues.

Today equipment and processes have become exponentially more complex. As a result, we are increasingly focused on cross-organizational integration within Applied Materials. AGS service engineers now routinely work with Applied Materials product development and manufacturing teams to ensure a faster, smoother and more cohesive ramp of new tools as they are designed, tested, brought to market, and later, upgraded. This internal “cross-pollination” delivers greater tool knowledge and significant serviceability benefits to customers, including increased uptime, more efficient system operation, and more competitive parts costs. We have invested heavily in technology and built up a very large database of fingerprints for our tools. These enable us to deploy field service servers with our tools to minimize ramp time and maximize performance.

The new, state-of-the-art Applied Centris Sym3 etch tool is a case in point. From the outset, AGS engineers have worked alongside the product design and development teams to develop service routines, understand parts, kits and replacement cycles, and become familiar with process operations. They have also coordinated installation and startup procedures, from facilities requirements to pilot wafer runs. The result is a highly sophisticated new tool with faster ramp times, more precise troubleshooting, and more efficient parts management.

Applied’s epitaxial tool group is another example. That business unit also integrates service considerations into product design and development. One result is that we have been able to significantly reduce green-to-green time (i.e., the time needed to take a tool down from a good state, do preventive maintenance and pilot runs, and restore it to production). This is particularly impactful because epi tools are critical for multiple process steps at different nodes. Therefore customers across the board are heavily dependent on epi tools for high output.

Tool Life-Cycle Management

Customers often use Applied Materials tools for many years, and sometimes buy used or refurbished tools at different life-cycle stages. Consequently, we have developed multiple service offerings that address tool performance across the full tool life-cycle.

We start working on service while the tool is still being designed. When it is released, so are our standard service offerings. Then, as the tool goes through its first installations and first-of-a-kind application ramps, our field service organization identifies opportunities to operate it most effectively, perform efficient preventive maintenance (PM), and reduce operating costs.

Our service product development teams then create additional offerings as the tool continues to age. These may include hardware continuous-improvement products (CIPs) and new solution-specific service and parts offerings. One example is the new Applied output improvement service solution for legacy Endura PVD systems introduced elsewhere in this edition of Nanochip Fab Solutions.

Later in the tool’s life cycle, we focus on managing parts obsolescence for our customers. This may involve completely reengineering a part or subsystem for better performance—as we’ve done with our Applied Vita controllers for 200mm legacy equipment—or replacing a part that is no longer available from the original manufacturer.

Being There for Customers

Customers vary widely in the kind of service they request from AGS, but what they all want is for us to be there when they need us.

Sometimes being there for customers means having a physical presence on-site. For example, many advanced-node customers have Applied service contracts so that we can help them quickly ramp tools and optimize tool performance while they focus on their processes and core business.

But being there also can mean accelerating service- and parts-development to keep pace with new product development, which has picked up in recent years. For example, delivering new or lower-cost parts that improve device performance and yield fulfills our customers’ most important business needs.

Finally, providing traditional break-fix service is still very important to Applied Materials customers. Ensuring that we have the right part and engineer in place at the contractually agreed time is a fundamental part of that business.

Increasingly, customers ask for service that guarantees better performance from their tools. Therefore, we have developed concepts and contracts that guarantee supplier-dependent uptime. These have become increasingly popular, and newer variants address increased output or reduced time to yield.

There is also a focus on high-performance PMs, with the goal of maximizing tool availability and the process performance.

Investment in Service Technologies

AGS has teams working on creating the world’s most advanced service technologies, such as predictive services, which may help customers by providing more powerful prescriptive, or prognostic, capabilities.

We are also investing heavily in service infrastructure to streamline our operations and build customer engineer (CE) headcount and skills. This is tangible evidence of our commitment to stay on the leading edge of service technologies, and remain one step ahead of customers so that we can support the most complex processes as well as More than Moore applications.

Breaking Geographic Barriers

Given the global nature of semiconductor manufacturing, we are committed to helping customers worldwide shorten their time to more money. Our world-class supply chain is a significant benefit, and is only part of that commitment. Investment in people’s knowledge and skills is another. Take China as an example, where Applied has had operations since the early 1980s. AGS has built close relationships with many universities and has a very active New College Graduate program to help local engineers develop the skills to support China’s semiconductor industry.

Accelerate Success

It may be an overstatement to liken semiconductor manufacturing today to a white-knuckle ride on a roller coaster. But the fact remains that the opportunities to make money are fleeting and competition is intensifying.

That is why AGS is committed to helping customers accelerate their success. Our service offerings are continually evolving with that as the prime directive, and we will use them to shorten our customers’ time to more money, no matter what their challenges are.

For additional information, contact jeremy_read@amat.com.

About the Author:
Jeremy Read is Vice President of Service Marketing and Business Development for AGS.