Helping semiconductor companies maintain a competitive edge may come down to a hundredth of a degree.
If they handed out Olympic medals for obsessing over details, the semiconductor industry would be in constant contention for the gold.
How obsessive? Consider the case of one company whose machinery, in order to function properly, needed temperatures to avoid fluctuating more than four one-hundredths of a degree Celsius. Specialists at Air Innovations worked with them on a customized environmental control unit (ECU) capable of meeting that exacting specification.
Later, the client company came back with a new request: Could Air Innovations engineers shave off another hundredth of a degree, bringing the maximum fluctuation from .04 to .03?
Finicky, with a purpose
They weren’t just being finicky. In the world of semiconductors, success or failure is measured in temperature variations no human could ever detect, and by maintaining the integrity of components one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Or smaller. “They worry about particles that are way, way beyond the visible spectrum,” says Mike Wetzel, P.E., CEO and President of Air Innovations. “Their drive to quality and consistency and control is getting smaller and smaller.”
Indeed, one of the few things in the semiconductor industry that’s not small these days is the cost of failure. Machines that handle various stages of the semiconductor fabricating process often cost millions of dollars. And the penalties associated with interrupting production are likewise steep. “You’re talking tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars that companies lose when their machines go down,” says Sam Brown, OEM Sales Manager for Air Innovations.
Partnership a must
In such an exacting environment, it’s no surprise that very few environmental solutions are off-the-shelf ones. Not only does each stage of the complex semiconductor fabrication process require its own special environment, but each company also goes about it in different, often proprietary ways.
For Air Innovations to create effective ECUs therefore requires trusted partnership, close, back-and-forth communication and an absolute commitment to success. The process starts with the most detailed questions that Air Innovations engineers can think of, followed by detailed sketches showing how the system might actually come to life. “If we can’t make a detailed sketch, it means we haven’t asked enough questions,” Wetzel says.
Once both teams have agreed on the specifications and sketches, it’s time for a deep dive into design and build. Perhaps the most crucial phase is the lengthy testing process once the build is complete. Air Innovations, for example, uses its Psychometric Testing Facility lab, located at its North Syracuse, New York headquarters, to duplicate the conditions under which the unit will operate. This ensures it can reliably meet all of the required specs day in and day out. Finally, comprehensive training ensures that the client company can operate the unit as a fully integrated part of its own fabrication process.
Of course, when it comes to environmental control, the joy and excitement isn’t about what you’ve already built, but what you’re going to build next. If you want to serve the constantly changing semiconductor industry, adaptability is a must.
“You may design a system that meets all of the needs, but six months from now you’re obsolete,” Brown says. “That means that we can design to a customer’s needs today. And as their technology evolves, we must evolve with them.”
For more information on Air Innovations and environmental control in the semiconductor industry, please see our whitepaper, “Pursuing Perfection: Semiconductors and the Race to Tiny” at www.airinnovations.com, or give us a call at 800-825-3268.