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With respect to Embedded Integrated Computer Systems (EICSs) the semiconductor test market has some unique attributes that may not be immediately obvious or logical to outsiders. The recent VDC report on EICSs used in the industrial automation market estimated 2010 revenues of ~$210 Million for semiconductor processing making it an attractive market to enter. Embedded computing suppliers that thrive here are likely to follow these 5 key rules.
Make it small: Floor space is at a premium in wafer fabrication/semiconductor test facilities. These facilities are often very carefully controlled for dust, static, electrical interference, vibration, temperature, and humidity and therefore represent some of the most expensive square footage in the industrial automation market with respect to operating costs. Computers that can be embedded inside or flexibly mounted to take advantage of available niches in test cells and or test equipment are well received.
Make it Fast: Reducing test times for a given device by even a few milliseconds or having the ability to test many devices in parallel are keys to winning the tester sale. EICSs in addition to deeply embedded Digital Signal Processing (DSP), Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) and Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) are often used in high quantity to achieve this goal. It is important to remember that a semiconductor tester has to be faster than the state of the art devices it is testing. In this blog, I am focusing on EICSs but many of the 5 keys are applicable to deeply embedded computing components as well.
Make it easy/fast to service: Semiconductor testers are extremely expensive with it being quite easy for a well configured unit to cost several million dollars. Even so, the return on investment can be made in only a few weeks to the owner. Therefore, any downtime is very visible and Mean Time to Repair (MTTR) is expected to be in minutes, not hours. Suppliers should design EICSs to have very high reliability but also with easy to access mounts, enclosures, and internal components that allow them to be serviced while wearing a clean room suit and gloves.
Make a flexible configuration: The EICS that is required for a semiconductor tester varies depending on the role it is asked to perform. A production tester needs only a simple Human Machine Interface (HMI) but one that is used for test program development and debugging will need more memory depth and graphics capability to allow the engineer to see and manipulate test patterns as well as analyze the data that is captured while tests are run.
Make it exactly the same – for a long time: A semiconductor test platform will usually be actively sold for at least 5 years but often needs to be supported for at least 10 years and sometimes even longer. Once a tester platform is discontinued a market can develop for the used ones and, in some cases for them can be equal to or even exceeding their original factory price. This can happen when the demand for some legacy semiconductor devices becomes higher than expected. Once a test program has been written and specialized probe cards for wafers and/or interface boards for packaged device handlers have been designed it is extremely expensive process to move them to another tester platform.
Throughout the entire tester platform lifecycle, any changes in embedded computers can require that thousands of hours be spent to re-certify test programs and debug them if problems are seen. Faster computers will often be problematic if, for example, the programmer did not have enough settling time after an instrument was set up before making the measurement.
Changes to an EICS can also lead to increased inventory costs. Because of the MTTR concerns discussed earlier, caches of spare parts are stocked in globally dispersed warehouses and even right at customer sites to allow instant or very quick availability should a failure occur. Changes to an EICS can require multiple sets of slightly different inventory to be stocked.
In summary, a key to winning an embedded hardware product sale to a semiconductor tester company is being active in the design phase and then executing a commitment to provide a stable product through the entire tester product lifecycle. The surprise can be that a newer, faster, or cheaper EICS product will typically not unseat the incumbent unless the original supplier falters in one of the 5 key areas.