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News Article

Advanced MES Capabilities Can Extend Semiconductor Fab Lifetimes

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As the current global microelectronics shortage demonstrates, semiconductor manufacturing is not a simple. IC fabs are not created to pivot quickly as much as they are to produce high quality products at low cost. The experts from Critical Manufacturing outline ways advanced manufacturing execution systems (MES) can help fabs maximize output while also extending their serviceable lifetime. BY CRITICAL MANUFACTURING

SEMICONDUCTOR MANUFACTURING is unquestionably one of the most complex and sensitive manufacturing processes in the world. Creating line widths on silicon wafers down to five nanometers or less with billions of transistors means that even the smallest vibration or misalignment during fabrication will cause issues. Alongside the sophisticated processes required to manufacture, the industry is further challenged with very short product lifecycles involving millions of devices, or, the need for small batches of niche products to be produced over decades. Only a few semiconductor companies in the world can afford to invest in building new, large capacity fabs with the latest equipment and technologies. Incredibly expensive equipment such as extreme ultraviolet (EUV) scanners costing over $125 million each combined with the need for costly clean room real estate truly makes IC manufacturing one of the most challenging business environments.


One hallmark of a good MES designed to support advanced semiconductor manufacturing is a simple interface; ideally the interface should be: intuitive; support multiple production sites; offer multi-lingual options and provide easy navigation.

For the last two decades, increasing wafer size and performance in front-end chip processing has been an industry focus, with manufacturers looking to more expensive 300mm wafer technology to meet demands for quality, high volume products. But as chips are made and used in an increasing number and variety of products, it has become apparent that not every chip needs to be produced at the millions of unit's level using the latest technology.
A substantial portion of the ICs made today - even those in advanced products - can still be produced, efficiently and profitably, in smaller 150mm and 200mm fabs, which are experiencing a surprising renaissance in recent years. Many of these smaller fabs started life in the 1990s or even the 1980s; a lot of the equipment dates back to the last century, but still adhere to industry manufacturing standards. This equipment has what some might consider surprising longevity thanks to frequent upgrades, readily available replacement parts and the addition of more sophisticated robots and sensors combined with comprehensive maintenance programmes.

Smart manufacturing is establishing a foothold in the semiconductor industry and Industry 4.0 technologies are breathing new life into aging process tools to make them run even more cost efficiently. By employing modern manufacturing execution systems (MES), the life of aging semiconductor production facilities can be extended, and advanced capabilities can be added to provide a pathway to the future for the industry.

A future-ready MES provides manufacturers with solutions to many challenges. It can add production capacity and throughput by driving efficiency without increasing expensive clean room space. It can enhance production consistency and reduce costly processing errors, reduce time-to-market for new products, and provide solutions to enable the latest, most advanced production steps. Some or all of these benefits may not only be critical for profitability, but may actually be the key to the survival of a company.


In documenting the flow of information and automating such tasks as step change approvals, a simple graphic depiction of hierarchy and process flow (seen here) aids quick comprehension of the task at hand.

Why and which MES
The cost and changing landscape of semiconductor manufacturing needs an MES solution that can adapt for the future. Data is more important than ever and offers manufacturers a way to better monitor and control processes as well as providing deeper insights to help resolve production challenges and support decision making.

As volumes of data continue to increase at a tremendous rate, first and foremost, a future-ready MES needs to incorporate a fully scalable Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) data platform for ingesting, processing and analyzing the vast volumes of data points that, if contextualized and analyzed correctly, can increase the speed of learning to help drive production efficiency and deliver continuous process improvements.

New fabs and equipment have the capability to be highly automated, but the cost is very high. For older fabs, a modern MES solution presents a way to extend the life of facilities and tools without spending billions of dollars needed to build and equip a new fab. But success requires a highly versatile system that can integrate new IoT devices and legacy equipment to provide full visibility of plant operations. By providing greater control and tighter processing tolerances, the right MES solution can increase production capacity, efficiency and throughput, presenting significant advantages to producers, especially with the current shortage of chips available in the market.


Typical layout of controls with clear access points; MES tools should always be developed with constant feedback from current and new users.

Older facilities usually have a legacy MES combined with a patchwork of disparate systems that operators have used over the course of years. Long-term operation within a given environment may build confidence, but it is a fact the maintenance of such older systems that consume a great deal of specialized resources since technology upgrades and additional applications have been added over the years.

Because so many resources are focused on keeping an outdated yet familiar system up and running, it is easy to forget that advanced MES now available could substantially improve an organization's capability and profitability. This is especially true for situations where businesses have merged or been acquired; fabs in different locations will often have different MES solutions. This adds an additional maintenance layer to the plant's overhead and inhibits the ability to fully optimize production across multiple sites.

What should older fabs look for from a new MES? One major manufacturer found that bringing disparate systems and processes into a holistic MES solution integrated with ERP delivered substantial benefits. First, it forced them to organize the information and enforce protocols which, in turn, created better understanding and continuous improvement to meet tightening requirements. Having previously used legacy MES technology to guide shop floor processes, the new MES provided much-needed increases in granularity to drive efficiencies. First pass yield increased and cycle times decreased; there was also a beneficial information flow increase, greater visibility into processes and error reduction. Overall, the impact on the bottom line was significant. But perhaps more importantly for the future, the investment made today in a fully scalable MES offers this customer even more ways to reduce costs and increase production capacity through legacy equipment integration and even tighter parameter control while enabling future expansion. Essentially, the customer gained a much more productive present day production environment as well as easier pathways for future expansion.