Bringing Semiconductor Capital Equipment to Market

By Kirk Van Dreel, Sr. Dir. – Global Manufacturing Technology Development, Plexus

Where flexibility in Copy Exact can help in today’s landscape

Kirk Van Dreel

The semiconductor capital equipment market has historically demonstrated high levels of demand variability, but the most recent chip shortage has pushed the market to exceed previously inconceivable growth levels. With the need for more capital equipment, getting products out the door quickly is paramount, and a tried and true way to ensure the quality and consistency in production at scale has been the Copy Exactly methodology, also known as Copy Exact. But, does this manufacturing process still hit the mark given the current market landscape?

The Copy Exact method became a staple in the 1980s when major chip manufacturers drastically increased their output up to millions of chips per month. The success of this method prompted chip manufacturers to start requiring wafer fabrication equipment (WFE) manufacturers to implement the practice as well, even though the manufacturing volumes in the space were much lower. In the simplest terms, this methodology specifies the full process down to the machine and parts that must be used in all manufacturing lines to ensure consistency in quality. That means there must be replication and strict adhesion to material sources, controls, equipment, software versions and more in every facility where the product is being manufactured. Once the first process article is finalized, it’s considered locked and must go through thoroughly vetted multi-level approvals if changes are required.

This methodology has proven to be effective for the last 30 years for chip manufacturers, and most aspects will continue to be effective going forward. But, with today’s supply chain issues and aggressive time to market goals, this methodology is showing the need for flexibility in some key areas to help improve output for WFE manufacturers.

Improve struggles with supply chains

Copy Exactly’s strong reliance on approved suppliers has been a cornerstone of quality maintenance. But component and chip backlogs have reached unprecedented levels, and they’re expected to continue through 2023. Exploring new supplier and component options can help mitigate the delays by tapping into alternative, high-quality component suppliers. To help improve the process, using an outside partner for supply chain and engineering services can increase your effectiveness in properly vetting new suppliers and qualifying alternative components.

If this partner has experience in the SemiCap industry, they may have some of the vetting processes already completed. And if an alternative component is the best option to keep production moving, the engineering services support can help enable the new part to be viable for production if your customer doesn’t have the bandwidth to do the work.

Increase efficiency to improve output

While the main goal of Copy Exactly is to maintain consistent quality at high volumes, it curtails your ability to make process improvements quickly as technology advances. For example, in the 1980s software updates were fewer and further between, whereas software updates now regularly come out multiple times a year. Often the goal of these updates is to improve the quality, performance and/or efficiency of the equipment the software runs on. Typically, Copy Exact requires a product-by-product review and approval process, which extends the implementation period and causes the equipment to run with down revision software. With software updates requiring the same approval levels as major equipment changes, the approval period can take up to three months to complete. That adds on more work for the approval team as they’re working through vetting the update, and slows down your equipment until the update can be approved. But, there may be established options to make improvements in this area.

Leveraging the approach from the medical industry, a non-product software validation approach provides a single evaluation on the performance of the software allowing it to be replicated across multiple products and customers without further approvals. Within Copy Exactly, depending on the flexibility of your customers, you may be able to truncate approval processes with a similar approach. For instances like this, it can be a great option to increase velocity and take the burden of additional work off your team.

Keep up with technology

The standard practice for Copy Exact is to invest heavily upfront in equipment that best suits manufacturing at high volumes. Over time equipment upgrades come up, but in strict adherence, taking advantage of the upgrades takes a considerable amount of time, or in some cases, does not happen. The need to maintain consistency can be counterintuitive to the core principles of Copy Exactly – consistently maintain high quality at high volumes.

The upgrades often include improving the quality controls in the end product. Since the end goal of Copy Exact is to maintain quality, not upgrading the equipment hinders your ability to maintain quality. Increasing flexibility and updating equipment ultimately help you produce higher quality products, lower costs and get products out the door.

Where to turn for help

While the strictness of Copy Exactly can seem overwhelming, and your customers may have varying levels of adherence to the methodology, outside manufacturing partners like Plexus can help you navigate the nuances you face. Our experience in Copy Exact can help you refine flow-down requirements and navigate all of the steps your customers may require in these workflows. And when the time comes, we’ll help you work through discussions with your customers to streamline change management to mitigate risks while focusing on quality improvements.

Our continuous improvement approach to manufacturing ensures that we maintain high quality while delivering on efficiency to help you meet your customers’ demands. With our end-to-end service offering, we can provide industry insight to alleviate some of the roadblocks that tend to pop up in change management processes. So whether your customers require tight adherence to Copy Exactly, or welcome suggestions to improve production, Plexus is ready to help you meet your needs today and in the future.

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