News Article

Global Network...local Needs

With the electronics industry facing increasing economic and legislative pressures, it’s not just manufacturers that need to adapt their ways of doing business. Richard Larder, Electronics Services Business Manager from Air Products, explains how the business is changing the way it delivers services to stay ahead of customers’ needs...
The worldwide electronics market has seen some turbulent times over the past few years. The recent murmur of an upturn in demand has been welcome, but while most new large-scale production development has been located in Asia, the European industry is being forced to review the way it operates, to ensure that costs are kept to a minimum and operational efficiency is continuously improved. With mounting economic pressure and an increasing burden of red tape from new technical and environmental legislation, a greater level of understanding, training and capability is becoming increasingly essential.

This changing environment has inevitable consequences for industry suppliers. It means that more than ever we need to adopt an innovative approach to the way we deliver our services. This is particularly important for those of us in the gas and chemical industry - and one focus of change for us is the technical centre.

A perfect partnership

The concept of centres to support the supply of gases and chemicals to the electronics industry is not a new one. When Air Products first introduced them in North America in 1988, they were seen as an ideal way of providing commercial, technical and engineering support to regional electronics clusters. The approach worked well. The support provided was recognised as a critical factor for the success of fabs. Thanks to strong relationships with customers, involvement in industry forums, and training and drills with local fire departments, we quickly became an integral part of the local semiconductor community. At the same time teams of engineers and technicians, ranging in size from one part-time person to 60 or more personnel, were placed on customer sites. This service we called MEGASYS Total Gas and Chemical Management System. Alongside local technical centres, it helped Air Products become the leading provider of gases and chemicals to the electronics industry.

When operations to supply the European industry began, the same model was replicated, except instead of regional technical centres supporting operations in the USA, the European technical centre was in the UK. The same model that had been so effective in the US market was used and our relationships with multinational customers and reputation in the sector grew.

The model continues to work well for many customers, but the changing face of the European electronics industry means a new approach to the technical centre is essential.

A new approach

The new pressures on manufacturers and the increasingly complex task of managing the gas and chemical supply chain in fabs means that the new technical centre must offer a more flexible approach. More services are required, as is greater access to broader expertise - all this while keeping manufacturers' costs to a minimum.

Nine such regional technical centres provide long-term support to Air Products' broad customer base in Europe. Currently located in England, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, France and also Israel, further expansion is planned in the near future.

Using a local staff of engineers and technicians, these new style technical centres have the capability to deal with a wide range of problems, no matter how complex or how fast the solution required.

The services provided are designed to give fabs the option of outsourcing all aspects of gas and chemical management, engineering and training. They range from inventory management, spares and maintenance, through to emergency response, gas analysis and optimisation. The centres also provide training in areas such as gas and chemicals handling, health & safety and equipment operation.

Overall, the new European technical centre is a different offering from the one that emerged in the early days. The concept is simple - the best of both worlds - global expertise and local knowledge. The centre is a part of a worldwide organisation with a broad range of specialist skills. At the same time it employs local technicians and engineers that speak the local language, understand the local issues and provide a value added service.

A fab operator in Southern France, for example, can get advice from a leading process optimisation expert from Pennsylvania, USA, on one day, and through the same technical centre team, have a routine maintenance task performed by a technician from Toulouse the next.

The Dutch experience

A prime example of this new type of operational support being delivered to a wide customer base is in the Netherlands. Our technical centre of excellence in Nijmegen is located in one of Northern Europe's most densely populated electronics clusters. The centre provides fast and flexible local support to customers across the region. A technician is always available and can respond to customer questions, whether it concerns gases, chemicals or the environment, or whether it is a long term or short-term issue.

The Nijmegen centre holds a stock of ultra-high pressure (UHP) components available 24 hours a day, for use in emergencies among clients in the optoelectronic, semiconductor, fibre-optic and pharmaceutical industries. There is a cleanroom, which means spare assemblies and even gas panels for cabinets can be manufactured on short notice in a low particle environment. Local design and project engineering are also available, as are the company's Tracelab high purity analytical services.
A state-of-the-art training suite supported by full time trainers has also been developed, meaning classroom and computer-based training can be delivered on site. The training facility serves both customers and our own personnel, and is supported by a range of gas delivery, toxic gas monitoring and analytical equipment for hands-on practical operations and troubleshooting training.

The new style technical centre came into its own recently when a customer approached the Nijmegen team about a planning issue surrounding their existing cylinder storage and distribution operation. The cylinder system on the customer's site breached recent changes to local authority regulations on safety, environmental standards and security. Using expertise gained through the design and installation of hundreds of cylinder depots across the globe, our engineers developed plans for a new off-site facility, incorporating features such as gas detection systems and CCTV. Within a few months, a local planning application was issued and Air Products took over management of the cylinder storage. The facility opened at the end of May.

Unravelling the red tape

This is not the first time technical centre services have been called upon to deal with legislative and environmental issues, and we expect demand for this type of service to rise as the burden of red tape increases. New European legislation, including directives on electromagnetic compatibility (EMC), pressure equipment (PED) and pressure systems, requires an increasingly high level of engineering expertise.

Already more and more customers across Europe are requesting optimisation of their systems, and this is where the technical centre's global network comes to the fore.

Process optimisation and emissions expertise carried out by worldwide specialists using mobile analytical equipment has typically been shown to reduce the amount of product consumed by 30-50%. As a customer in Germany recently discovered, this can result in significant cost and environmental savings. The customer approached the technical centre in Germany to reduce gas costs and perfluorocompound (PFC) emissions associated with chamber cleaning. Optimisation experts from Allentown USA and the UK were drafted in. They investigated alternatives to the existing CF4 based clean process. The resulting recommendations found that C2F6 was the perfect solution. Once the new process was in place not only was the fab's emission issue resolved, but also its costs were cut in the process.

Elsewhere, training offered by technical centres is helping customers handle the increasing complexity of gas and chemicals management. For example, our technical centres helped to dramatically improve safety standards at a major OEM by delivering gas and chemical awareness and basic safety training to all the customer's technicians. Ultimately this helped the company achieve ISO 9000 and 14000 registrations.

A flexible future

Already this new approach to technical support is proving its worth. With the aim of taking the increasing burden of complexity away from the manufacturer, the new technical centre provides the answer to a wide range of problems under one roof.

The objective is also for centres to evolve as the industry develops. The global network will ensure that the latest changes in safety and environmental legislation are monitored and training and services developed in response.

Above all, the new technical centres will enable manufacturers to take a flexible approach to gas and chemical management. Despite industry forecasts suggesting an upturn, there may be further uncertain times ahead in the electronics market. But whatever the outlook, the new technical centre model should send a clear message to European manufacturers - a local gas and chemicals service support business is here to stay and can help make a safer and more efficient fab.

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