Another lab’s treasure


Nanotech start-ups are finding great deals on used semiconductor processing equipment that can be altered to fit their needs

By Sarah Fister Gale

Nanotech start-ups are in the unusual position of benefiting from both the demise and the success of semiconductor fabs. It’s not a new trend. For years, obsolete semiconductor facilities and failing start-ups have been able to recoup some of their losses by selling used equipment on the market, while successful fabs trade in their older equipment when they upgrade to newer models or larger batch sizes.

Either way, nanotech labs working on tight budgets and small scales can snap up perfectly functioning equipment, sometimes for less than half of its original price, says Barrie VanDevender, vice president of sales and marketing for Axus Technology, a global supplier of equipment and engineering services in Chandler, Ariz. “Semiconductor device sales are made in great volumes in a narrow, but deep, marketplace, while our MEMS customers often address specialty applications,” he says. That translates into a marketplace full of valuable used equipment, and those who benefit the most are research labs and start-ups. “Along with the fact that new labs don’t need bleeding-edge technology, the volume of their specialized product is typically a fraction of the volume seen in an IC fab,” he says. “What that means for us is that we provide smaller numbers of tools to a larger number of end users.”

During the refurbishing process, a wet process bench is tested. Photo courtesy of ClassOne Equipment Inc.
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Even if the semiconductor tools don’t meet the exact needs of nanotech facilities, many dealers, such as Axus, have the engineering expertise on staff to adjust, alter, or even add new parts to an existing tool to make it fit its new owner’s applications. That can include minor modifications to standard equipment, such as adjusting CMP equipment to support substrates with unique size, shape, thickness, or material; or adding parts, tanks, or other elements to create new applications for existing tools.

“Often a process can be more efficiently and profitably accomplished using a consumable part or replaceable component made of a new or different material, or possibly in a different form,” VanDevender says. “On newer equipment it is possible to substantially improve the economics of the manufacturing process by redesigning a consumable part in a manner that improves the cost of the part by modifying the design, the use of new materials, or both.”

Teaching an old dog new tricks

The transition of tools across industries is more easily accomplished than some may think, says Byron Exarcos, president of ClassOne Equipment, a used equipment dealer in Atlanta, Ga. “There are basic processes that are common to most cleanroom industries. For example, photolithography is done in semiconductor facilities, nanotech labs, MEMS, and LED manufacturing,” he points out. The same can be said for spin coating, etching, polishing, and wet processing. “The same tools can be used in all of these fabs without much alteration.”

The difference is that although large fabs have scaled up from smaller batch tools, most nanotech companies are still in pilot production and find great value in these tools, which can continue to work for decades.

Technology innovations since the early 1990s have resulted in robust semiconductor tools that have a much longer lifespan than their earlier precursors, VanDevender says. ”Many of these tools have seen two or three different owners and are still functioning.” He also notes that by the time equipment is superseded in a manufacturer’s product line it will have been perfected-having become reliable, less expensive to support, and most productive. ”There are many examples of tools that are struggling and unreliable at their introduction, ultimately becoming reliable workhorses just as the model is discontinued,” he says.

Some of these tools, which can be more than 10 years old, continue to function like new with only moderate refurbishing, says Ed Capovani, vice president of Capovani Brothers, a Scotia, N.Y.-based seller of used equipment. Others, however, require certain upgrades to get them back to OEM conditions.

Start-up companies running low-volume production often find that used equipment, such as this refurbished Suss MJB3 mask aligner, can save them $80,000 or more. Photo courtesy of ClassOne Equipment Inc.
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“With the older technology you sometimes need to get creative,” he says. For example, some pieces of equipment will come in with components that are worn out or no longer supported, such as vacuum controls. “This is often true of older tools, where material technology has improved since its production.”

When that happens, his team can usually replace the non-functioning elements to get the equipment back to working conditions. “Tools such as vapor deposition systems comprise dozens of components, but at its core it’s still just hardware,” Capovani says. “Once those components are replaced, the tool can have a long lifecycle.”

New devices add life

When tools require more than refurbishments or parts replacements to meet the unique needs of their new owners, many used-equipment dealers have engineering staff that can retrofit equipment, adding or adjusting components for new applications. “We are an engineering-oriented company, and that’s a large part of what we do,” says VanDevender.

For example, his team reformatted a Strasbaugh carrier and developed a ViPPR carrier upgrade kit that allows users of legacy IPEC tools to add this advanced carrier technology to the older 372M and 472 CMP tools. The upgrade was originally designed for Dymatix, an automation equipment solution provider in San Jose, Calif.-but it was so successful that Axus partnered with Strasbaugh, a provider of precision surfacing systems, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., to market the kit as a stand-alone product.

“The key performance advantage is that the ViPRR curve [pneumatic ring] is nearly flat from 3mm and on, whereas the older carrier technology shows a hump or non-uniformity in that same area, up to about 6mm from the edge,” he says. “The upgrade kit provides both semiconductor and MEMS users with state-of-the-art technology at a fraction of the current price.”

Axus has performed similar upgrades for other clients, including retrofitting polishers and cleaners with additional hardware and carrier heads; and altering grinders to deliver an ultra-smooth finish similar to a rough polish. “It’s not rocket science,” VanDevender says. “We are just applying existing technology in new ways to meet the needs of our clients.”

ClassOne has made similar additions to equipment, including extra tanks and recirculation systems to wet benches for additional process steps. “Our goal is to fine-tune the tool using the clients’ unique parameters for its processes,” Exarcos says.

However, before he agrees to make major alterations to any tool, he helps his client determine whether doing so is a good financial decision. “If the refurbishment crew can make the changes to meet their requirements and still deliver the tool for a reasonable price, we go ahead with it,” he says. “But if it’s going to increase the cost of the tool by more than 50 percent, we let them know that it may not be a good deal.”

That kind of advice is valuable in a market where it’s easy to get be taken advantage of, says Gary Alexander, executive director of SEC/N (The Semiconductor Equipment Consortium Network) in Phoenix, Ariz. The SEC/N organization was created to foster fair and ethical business practices and to develop and distribute standards and definitions specific to the secondary equipment market.

Do your homework

“Whether you need a complete retrofit of an existing tool, or you just want a good deal on a commonly found piece of used equipment, buying used requires a lot more due diligence than purchasing something new from the OEM,” Alexander says. “You must understand the total cost of what you are purchasing.”

According to Alexander, the worst mistake you can make is to buy a piece of equipment without looking at it first. “Ideally, before buying anything, buyers should have a site inspection of the tool to see it in operation in a fab. If that’s not possible, the next best thing is to see the tool up and running in the dealer’s facility.”

Dealers such as Capovani Brothers, ClassOne, and Axus, who buy the equipment they sell and do complete inspections, necessary upgrades, and test runs before delivering it to the customers, are quick to put forward such services to potential buyers. They also typically offer a 30- to 90-day warranty or certain guarantees that the product will operate to the agreed-upon spec, and they will provide support and training to get the equipment installed and operational.

If a dealer makes alterations or additions to a piece of equipment, it should also provide the documentation of the changes along with drawings and installation instructions, and new part numbers whenever necessary.

Axus developed an upgrade kit that allows users of legacy tools-such as this IPEC 472 CMP-to add an advanced carrier (inset). Photo courtesy of Axus Technology
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Alexander encourages buyers to choose reputable dealers and to avoid buying tools from equipment brokers, who foster the deals between the original and new owners but never take ownership of the equipment themselves. Referred to as the “as is, where it is” deal, he warns that you’ll get what you pay for.

“Today, most equipment requires some refurbishment,” he says. When you buy through a broker you are unlikely to get the work and maintenance the tool needs, and that adds an unknown cost to the equipment.

Besides ensuring equipment is operational, you must also be sure the deal gives you ownership of everything, Alexander cautions. That includes any necessary embedded software to operate the equipment. He has encountered several used-equipment buyers who thought they were getting a great deal only to discover after the purchase that the software license for the tool is not transferable. “That can add $150,000 to the price of the equipment,” he says.

Building a relationship with a dealer is the best way to guarantee you get what you want at a reasonable price, especially if you are a small firm that doesn’t buy in bulk quantities, says Eric Bowman, fabrication production supervisor for SemiSouth Laboratories, in Starkville, Miss. “We’ve tried several equipment refurbishers over the years-some we’ve been happy with, and some we haven’t [been happy with],” he says, noting that some of this best “deals” turned out not to be deals at all. He has had equipment delivered without manuals and specs and pieces that came without software, and other equipment had operational problems. “It’s a lot of hit or miss when you buy used. You can end up with a lot of problem after the sale if you aren’t careful.”

He has had the most luck with smaller independent refurbishers, such as ClassOne Equipment, where Bowman now sends most of his business. “They guarantee everything and refurbish it to as close to factory settings as possible,” he says of the dealer. “That kind of customer service sets them apart.”

Bowman advises smaller buyers like himself to avoid the larger resellers and to focus instead on working with a dealer who will invest more time and effort into meeting their needs. “If you find a dealer who does a good job finding you what you need and bringing it up to spec, invest in that relationship.”

Buying from a reputable smaller dealer may take a little more time and you may spend a little more than you would on a broker, but it takes much of the risk out of the deal, Exarcos says. “You might think $80,000 is a great price for a used mask aligner, but it’s still $80,000. If you get it into your facility and it doesn’t work, then that’s an $80,000 mistake.”

By shopping around and vetting dealers before you make the deal, that’s a mistake you should be able to avoid.