Customer Case Study: Company X
[Semiconductor equipment development, production, and sales]
Background and challenges
Meeting needs in high-end semiconductor manufacturing
Sometime around 2013, we received a request from a semiconductor manufacturer based outside of Japan to develop and deliver high-performance production equipment that would be a leading force in next-generation semiconductor manufacturing. The manufacturer sought high nano-level precision beyond the reach of conventional technology, thus requiring the development of completely new technology.
An air servo stage ready for vacuum chambers
Positioning stages are essential components in high-precision semiconductor production equipment. Here, the manufacturer needed a fast, high-precision air servo stage offering nano-level positioning under vacuum conditions. Although other companies also supplied air servo stages, Sumitomo Heavy Industries (SHI) technology was unmatched in meeting the demands of operating under vacuum conditions while ensuring high precision.
Industry leadership from a rapid launch with smooth operations
Precision approaching the required level was attained early on during preliminary investigations, and the whole development process leading up to launch took about 18 months. The product proved to be exactly what the client needed. Since then, other companies have inquired about this equipment, which has become a mainstay in high-end semiconductor production. Sales have surged over the past three years, and, in our view, the business holds great future potential.
Background, challenges, and decisive factors
Meeting needs in next-gen high-end production and supply
The life of this product began when a client proposed that we produce and deliver semiconductor manufacturing equipment that offered precision beyond the reach of conventional technology. Developing this positioning stage would involve several essential requirements:
We had in the past become familiar with a SHI vacuum air servo stage in use at a research institute. This sparked our interest in the precision of the stage and an appreciation for SHI’s high technical expertise in control equipment. The equipment in vacuum chambers must not generate heat and requires nonmagnetic, non-contact operation to enable precise, nano-level stage movement. Even today, only SHI’s Air Servo Stage CA-230 can meet these difficult requirements. Pneumatic servo stages of other companies are out of the question, as they cannot be used under high vacuum.
Launch, operation, and customer support
Earning client trust through extensive control technology, agility, and productivity
Company X representative
In the field of semiconductors, it’s clearly important to respond rapidly to technological advances, but manufacturers must also be agile and possess adequate supply capacity. Equipment must offer the required precision and be highly reliable in operation in order to minimize downtime. In this respect, Vacuum Air Stage CA-230 offered high precision from the start of our investigations, and both product development and operations after delivery were smooth and successful.
The first unit was delivered to a location outside of Japan. We were able to win the confidence of the end client thanks to our prompt response to any initial defects or issues at the start of operation, including visits by SHI experts. The non-contact, air bearing drive generates no particles or wear in use, which means less downtime for maintenance compared to conventional stages. This enhances productivity, which is definitely an advantage for our clients. More than five years have passed since we first supplied the equipment, and SHI has also responded to our further needs for the development of upgraded products.
Outcome and future prospects
Anticipating rapid business gains and further development
Company X representative
Without the Vacuum Air Servo Stage CA-230, we would have no other choice but to decline end-client’s inquiries. Furthermore, the business generated by this product would not exist today, as the technology behind it is absolutely unique. Our division had not contributed much to the company’s overall sales before production and sales of our equipment incorporating Vacuum Air Servo Stage CA-230 began;
however, since around 2006 when greater demand for high-end semiconductor applications (e.g., for smartphones) began to materialize, we have been able to offer our unique and unparalleled equipment to meet this demand; our division is now an important driver for the company’s sales as a whole.
Demand for semiconductors is broad, so in addition to the high-end applications that we currently serve with the Vacuum Air Servo Stage CA-230, we anticipate an expansion in mid-range and low-end fields in response to increased automation and the wider adoption of robots and IoT. More manufacturers compete in these fields than in the high-end segment, but the production equipment used is mainly conventional and relies on mechanical cylinders and metal bearings. Even without needing the precision of high-end manufacturing, a production line requiring much less time and effort for maintenance and potentially less downtime can help boost productivity and competitiveness. That’s why we’re looking into developing and supplying semiconductor production equipment for mid-range and low-end markets that is also equipped with the Vacuum Air Servo Stage CA-230. For example, the use of high-vacuum pneumatic drive technology from SHI could enable futuristic 24/7/365 production to complete a series of steps under vacuum conditions in conjunction with robots or the like. We’re optimistic that such results are more than theoretical and are actually achievable.