CEO interview: Chip equipment supplier on a rocket trajectory

CEO interview: Chip equipment supplier on a rocket trajectory

Interviews |
By Peter Clarke

Unity-SC is the recently-formed semiconductor metrology and inspection subsidiary of Fogale Nanotech SA (Nimes, France). From 2009 until 2016 Unity was the semiconductor division of Fogale, a company that uses expertise in capacitive sensing and optical interferometry to address multiple market segments including bioscience, medical, aerospace, civil engineering, automotive and industrial.

Unity sells a range of metrology and inspection tools to the semiconductor industry, capable of addressing process control of front-end processing, mid-end, advanced packaging, and MEMS, substrates. However, in general it supplies the More-than-Moore segment rather than the leading-edge, Fresquet said.

Gilles Fresquet, CEO of Unity-SC

Nonetheless, Unity’s customer list is impressive and with 70 units shipped the list includes the world’s largest foundries and IDMs; TSMC, Samsung, SK Hynix, Globalfoundries, Infineon, NXP and STMicroelectronics as well as the world’s top six packaging companies.

Unity recently introduced the NST series of non-contact full-field profilimetry tools that operate to 0.1nm resolution, which provides an example of its wares. These can be used measure the surface topography of semiconductor wafers in high-volume manufacturing and target image sensor and 3D memory IC production. It is used after chemical mechanical polishing (CMP) to ensure the wafer is ready for the next etch step.

Fresquet explained that parent company Fogale’s annual revenues can be “lumpy” as sometimes it develops technologies on behalf of clients and recognizes a large amount of revenue when selling that technology to them. So, while Fogale annual revenues have typically been around €20 million they can go as high as €80 million to €90 million. Fogale employs about 110 full-time employees of which about 80 percent are engineers.

Next: A different trajectory

Unity-SC is on different trajectory but as it represents about half of Fogale in terms of staff and revenue, it is one that will influence its parent. In 2015 the division, as it was then, had sales of between €3 million and €4 million. “In 2016 Unity’s revenues were €11 million. In 2017 we expect it to be between €20 million and €30 million,” said Fresquet.

“We do measurement and inspection from nanometers to millimeters both in engineering and production flow. We tend to start with engineering and R&D and then migrate into manufacturing,” Fresquet said. Typically, applications are 3D packaging and through-silicon-via measurements, MEMS manufacturing, and back-side illuminated (BSI) CMOS image sensor production. Other opportunities are with substrate manufacturers and wafer manufacturers and power IC inspection. “For power MOSFET and IGBTs there is a need to inspect the backside and edges of wafers after thinning. You need good backside metalization,” Fresquet explained.

So what explains Unity-SC’s rapidly rising sales for its equipment which tends to come as free-standing units with a price tag of $600,000 to $1 million? “We are in the market access mode. We have a lot of customers with one or two tools and they are now starting to send repeat orders. For now, those tool sales represent the vast majority of the company’s revenue. “At this point we don’t make revenue on service. You can get 10 to 15 percent of revenue from service when the market presence is established. We plan for that in 2019,” said Fresquet.

The company is doing well because it is addressing the More-than-Moore markets, that are themselves growing, with optimized tools, Fresquet said. “It would be very difficult to replace a metrology and inspection company, such as KLA-Tencor, in CMOS front-end manufacturing. A new company needs to access new markets,” he said.

There is however, plenty of competition from other small and medium-sized companies from the United States, Germany and Israel, Fresquet said. “Our market is 60 to 70 percent in Asia and 15 to 20 percent each in Europe and North America.”

Next: Need to move fast in Asia

Fresquet said that there is European business to be found in Dresden, Grenoble and Austria but said that as part of its “growing up” Unity-SC needs to “move fast” in Asia. Unity already has offices in Tainan, Taiwan, mainly for sales, applications and services, and is working with labs in Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. “We have to increase that in the next 12 months. We will start having R&D people, system engineering people and putting them together to get 10 to 20 people in a team.

Unity works in partnership with Fogale in terms of internal technology development, said Fresquet. “We have two approaches. Fogale Group is bottom-up working with the technology generically across all markets, such as infrared interferometry which was developed for a very large telescope in Texas. While at Unity-SC we use a top-down approach where we work to understand and meet the market requirements.”

Fresquet used the example of digital holography being developed in R&D by Fogale which has has the potential to be applied to back-end-of-line.

The NST non-contact profilimetry machine. Source: Unity-SC

One method to gain size and market share common in the semiconductor sector at present is merger and acquisition. “Fogale Group is quite cash rich. Yes, this is something mandatory to get the critical mass and get the market share. It is a major part of the growth,” said Fresquet.

Fresquet said that Fogale’s acquisition of Altatech in 2016 should be seen in the same light. Altatech SAS was founded in Grenoble in 2004 to provide equipment for wafer defect inspection and it had also developed chemical vapor deposition (CVD) technologies used for manufacturing of semiconductors, LEDs, MEMS and photovoltaic devices. After acquiring the business Fogale split these up with inspection being folded into Unity and another Fogale subsidiary – Kobus – being formed to house the atomic layer deposition (ALD) technology developed there.

It is clear that Unity-SC, along with its parent, is on the acquisition trail.

Related links and articles:

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Fogale buys Altatech for high-end metrology presence

R&D group begins TSV chip pilot production

Altatech enters LED inspection market

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