Roberto Priolo and Tim Brown speak to SPTS and find out that, in the microelectronics industry, attention to the smallest level of detail is absolutely vital in the production process.
Providing assistance to facilitate the mass production of consumer technology products, SPP Process Technology Systems (SPTS) is at the forefront of high tech manufacturing. A subsidiary of Japanese company Sumitomo Precision Products, the firm manufactures semiconductor wafer processing equipment used in the fabrication of a wide range of microelectronic devices.
The systems developed by SPTS use gases which are excited to form a ‘plasma’ which etches or deposits materials to create microscopic structures on a silicon wafer. These structures are then used as component parts of other products such as airbag sensors, or flash memory devices.
SPTS technology is used by a number of different industries including: microelectronic mechanical systems (MEMS); Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs); advanced packaging; and high speed electronics. The evolution of the company can be traced back to the 1960’s, and a south west based UK technology company called Electrotech.
Having undergone a number of branding transformations since then, its more recent history is almost as complex as the products it makes.
In the 1980’s Electrotech had a research equipment arm called Surface Research Systems (SRS, renamed Surface Technology Systems, STS in 1990. In1995 STS was sold to its Japanese distributor, Sumitomo Precision Products (SPP)..
In parallel, Electrotech was acquired by a US company and became Trikon Technologies and then through another acquisition, became Aviza Technology Incorporated in 2005. Finally, after acquiring some of the business units of Aviza, SPP merged it with STS, creating SPP Process Technology Systems — or SPTS as it is known today — 16 months ago.
Trade and trends
Only 5% of what SPTS produces is destined for UK domestic use. David Butler, vice president of marketing, explains: “If you consider the companies in the microchip market in the UK, the majority don’t actually make chips, they design them. There are a few that still manufacture in the UK, and a number of those rely on us for their equipment.
In terms of sales however, Asia is our number one market with more than 40% of our business attributable to that region, mainly to Taiwan, but also Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and China.
Another 35% goes to big European markets like Germany, Italy and France; the remainder is exported to America.” The strategy of the company is to focus on high growth emerging markets (such as MEMS, LEDs and Advanced Packaging) and to create stable longterm partnerships with customers. “This is a fast-changing market, because it is linked to the consumer market and is therefore exposed to consumer electronics trends,” explains Butler. He says that it is crucial for customers in the microtechnology industry to receive constant support in their operations.
“Take micro gyroscopes which are now present in virtually all smart phones and tablet PCs, those are the devices which recognise how your phone is orientated.
In 2009, no-one used any gyroscopes.
This year 26 million will be consumed by these consumer devices. So from nowhere, there are suddenly millions of them. If you make gyroscopes and aren’t ready for something like that, you won’t catch up. If you buy the wrong equipment, you may never recover.” Some of the SPTS competitors are in Europe and Asia, but the biggest ones are in the United States at the moment and include companies like Applied Materials and Lam Research. According to Butler, SPTS has a carefully calibrated approach to a number of target markets in which the company can not only perform strongly but where it will also be likely to develop its operations.
MEMS and LEDs
The 270-strong workforce at the company’s manufacturing plant in Newport, Wales, manufactures a large range of products. One SPTS offering is machinery for use in the production of Micro ElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS). This type of technology is found everywhere in modern consumer technology from phones to navigation systems, from health monitors to gaming. MEMS are used by companies such as Bosch, Infineon and ST Microelectronics in the manufacturing of their end products Products for the MEMS market include: pressure sensors for tyres; gyroscopes and accelerometers for airbag sensors, smart phones and even the Nintendo Wii; optical switches; and devices for the biomedical applications.
Butler says: “MEMS appear in everything we do. It’s a massive market.
In 2009 sales of these devices were $6.5bn, they’ll grow to $16bn in 2015.
In our application market, we are the number one equipment supplier to the companies that make MEMS.” With the number of smart phones produced every year set to grow by hundreds of millions, the demand for gyroscopes will increase steadily.
Another industry SPTS sells technology to is LEDs, for products such as: signs and signals; automotive lights; industrial and domestic lighting; and LED TVs.
Butler adds: “That’s an emerging market for us and has grown into a significant part of our business very quickly.”
The basis of a complex process
Wafer processing is very complex. It represents the basis of the fabrication of silicon chips in a sequence of multiple steps, during which electronic circuits are gradually created on a wafer made of pure semiconducting material (usually silicon). Chips are created on a regular and flat silicon surface, in a process broadly entailing four steps: deposition; removal; patterning; and alteration of electrical properties.
The UK division of SPTS specialises in the manufacture of equipment used in the first two categories. Deposition is a process through which material is grown, coated or in general transferred onto a wafer. Physical vapour deposition and chemical vapour deposition, along with etching (the removal step), are the main focus of products made by SPTS.
The company’s mission is to become a market leader in the supply of equipment performing those actions. “Our machines will put down metal to make conduction paths or insulators to prevent a connection from shorting out, and then etch those same materials to create circuits, or produce micro electromechanical structures in Si.” says Butler. “It is the same principle as exits in general electrical engineering but shrunk to a microscopic level.” Silicon is not the only substrate that SPTS machines can interact with. For companies in the high speed electronics market, for example, the ideal substrate is gallium arsenide.
“Silicon is cheap and there’s a lot of it everywhere,” says Butler. “When you go to the beach, you stand on it. But it isn’t the fastest semiconductor in the world. If you want to make a very high speed semiconductor, you want to use compound materials such as gallium arsenide (GaAs) or indium phosphide (InP),” Butler explains. “GaAs was a niche material for years , excellent for high speed electronic devices, but because of its cost, only applicable to very specialised, small volume applications. However today, GaAs devices appear in the RF circuit of every single mobile phone; it’s a perfect example of an emerging market in which we excel.
R&D and lean
Given the complex nature of the processes its equipment is deployed for, SPTS invests a lot in Research and Development, to keep abreast of customers’ needs. “15 to 20 per cent of what we earn goes into R&D,” confirms Butler.
“This allows us to constantly improve what we do, in terms of how fast we put down and etch materials, to keep customers happy and attract new ones.”
The consumer market is unpredictable, and it’s tough for device makers to see the next killer application. However, Butler continues, “they need to be confident that the equipment they use is going to be able to complete the task they require now and in the future. Our customers value our experience and knowledge for production, resulting in high yields in the chip manufacturing process.” Early product development, the research and the feasibility assessment, is conducted on site, but SPTS also cooperates with customers, analyzing performance of equipment they have through regular meetings. “We realise you have to talk to customers all the time,” says Butler. “To take back what we’ve learned and feed it back to what we do here.” In manufacturing, SPTS implements continuous improvement. The company started to invest in lean and uses 5s methodology. Mike Hewlett, vice president, operations, says: “We also have a pretty robust training programme.
In the UK division, we have three specific product ranges and the manufacturing staff are trained to a generic level where they can test or assemble all those three products through the same process.
It’s a moving target, as new products are designed they are introduced into the manufacturing stream.” Although equipment made by SPTS is expensive, it allows the companies making the chips to do so in high volumes.
In fact, customers use equipment to create sometimes thousands of devices on a circle of silicon. Butler explains: “It’s all about economics of scale, volume and cost. Think of the cost of the modern computer or mobile phone, and then compare the performance to what you had just a few years ago. That incredible reduction in cost/performance is all down to what our customers do in their factories.” SPTS aims to achieve higher capacities.. At the moment, however, the firm’s current focusis to continue to develop the markets in which it has already made inroads and, as the sectors in which it operates expand, to undergo organic growth. They will of course continue to keep tabs on new types of applications that cater to customer needs, while expanding future business.
Butler is confident about the future of SPTS.. “We aim to provide a high service-level offering to our customers and that level of service often leads to other business elsewhere.” By developing trust in its customer base and the continued development of technological innovations in its products, SPTS is looking to grow and develop its business while continuing to cater for the growing demands of a fast-moving market.