Asia Pacific is the powerhouse of electronics production. More chips are produced there than anywhere else in the world. In the groove spoke to Glen Wang and Kevin Lai, who sit right in the center of the flourishing semiconductor industry.
In the groove: What’s the semiconductor market like at the moment?
Kevin Lai: It’s booming. We always see volatility, with demand going up and down for chips, but the trend overall is an upward one. There are so many electronic applications, and they are continuing to grow in number. Inline with this, chip volumes are increasing.
In the groove: Where is the semiconductor activity going on in the region?
Kevin Lai: Most of the semiconductor original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are based in the States and Europe. In Asia Pacific, they are located in Japan. The two other key countries involved in semicon are Taiwan and Korea. There our customers are primarily end-users who buy equipment from the OEMs for chip production. So, for us, Maintenance Repair Overhaul (MRO) is the main business.
In the groove: You haven’t mentioned China, isn’t semiconductor manufacturing moving there?
Kevin Lai: Without a doubt there is a large shift of electronic production from other countries in Asia Pacific to China, but this trend is very dependent on the type of manufacture. Japan, Taiwan and Korea are still dominant in the semiconductor sector as China is not yet technically mature enough to supply some components for this industry. The requirements are really at the cutting edge of electronics technology.
So, yes, mainstream manufacturing is moving to China. It is producing six-inch fabs but the 12-inch fab lines remain in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. China is excellent at supplying older technology electronic items, but for the higher technology products, such as CPUs and RAM, fabrication is in Japan, Korea, or Taiwan.
Kevin Lai is the General Manager of the Trelleborg Sealing Solutions Taiwan marketing company.
In the groove: You talk about six-inch and 12-inch wafers. We understand 12-inch wafer production is increasing. Why?
Glen Wang: Its simple. Imagine the wafer is a pizza. A six-inch pizza you can cut into six slices, a 12-inch pizza into 12 or more. So from a 12-inch wafer you can produce a lot more chips. The down side is that there is greater risk of failure. It takes around 400 different processes to produce a single microchip. The slightest impurities or malfunction in any one of these, and the wafer must be scrapped. The bigger the wafer is, the higher the cost of doing that. Quality is more critical in 12-inch fabrication, so everything in the processing system must meet the highest requirements. That includes the seals.
In the groove: Kevin, in Taiwan most of your customers are MROs. Is there much demand for seals from them?
Kevin Lai: The demand is high from the MROs. In fact, the aftermarket is as big as the OEM market, and it is extremely competitive. The fab is always under pressure from their customers to reduce costs so that the overall price of electronic items can be lowered. The fab is therefore continuously demanding the most cost-effective sealing solution. That doesn’t always mean they are looking for the cheapest priced seals. In fact, the cheapest seal can often prove to be the most expensive in the end.
In the groove: Why is that?
Kevin Lai: One of the key things that the fab is trying to do is to extend the Mean Time Between Maintenance (MTBM). A low cost seal will probably be of an inferior material that will only give a short life. Superior materials, specially engineered to meet the requirements of semiconductor manufacture, can provide extended life.
A worse problem still is the potential for seal failure if a poor quality seal is used, as the cost of downtime in a fab can be huge. Most manufacturers will therefore be looking at total cost of production. They’ll not just be considering the price of the seal, but also compatibility with process chemicals, gases and plasma. They’ll want a proven extended life for the products they fit.
Glen Wang is CPI & Semicon Regional Manager.
In the groove: I guess that means you have to work closely with the customers.
Glen Wang: Our biggest advantage in the Asian semiconductor market is that we supply a high level of engineering support on sealing solutions. The majority of our competitors will just offer a standard replacement O-Ring for an application. Our objective is instead to maximize seal life expectancy. In conjunction with our customers’ engineering teams we examine the differing requirements for each processing stage, so that we can specify a seal material or product that matches the conditions faced.
In the groove: Will the customer be looking for a single sealing solution throughout the processing system?
Glen Wang: Definitely not. Different sealing materials have different tolerances in terms of temperature resistance, friction characteristics in rotating applications or capability to withstand media. In the semiconductor industry there are some really specific and demanding needs. Seals must be ultra clean, particle extraction is measured at microscopic levels and metal contamination is a big issue. The seals have to withstand some exceptionally aggressive chemicals, gases and even bombardment by plasma. In other parts of the system they need to operate in a vacuum or low outgassing may be critical.
In some areas, which are not so severe, such as etching, we can specify fluoroelastomer, for instance. But in processes like chemical vapor deposition (CVD) or physical vapor deposition (PVD), which are more challenging, we’d have to recommend Turcon® PTFE based products or our FFKM compounds specifically formulated for the semiconductor industry, the Isolast® Fab Range™.
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