How To Buy Used Fab Tools

The used equipment market is a tough place to get a good deal.


Buying used equipment is a good way to find viable tools at reasonable prices. But the used equipment market is not a simple place to shop for good deals. As reported in this article, it’s a complex market. For example, buyers of fab tools can procure used gear from several sources—an OEM; a used equipment company; a broker; and through eBay. Some IDMs also sell used equipment.

So what are some of the guidelines when buying used tools? To provide some insight, Semiconductor Engineering sat down to discuss this market with Brent Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of global supply chain operations at On Semiconductor, an analog/mixed-signal chipmaker. On Semiconductor has three 200mm fabs and six 150mm plants.

SE: Does On Semiconductor buy new or used fab gear?

Wilson: It’s a mixture. In the wafer fab, we buy some new, with the majority of it being used. In our assembly and test organization, it flips. The majority is new and some is used.

SE: Why buy used equipment?

Wilson: It has some cost advantages. Depending on the opportunity, it sometimes has a timing advantage as well.

SE: What types of used equipment do you buy?

Wilson: It’s not based on criticality. We buy lithography tools in the used market. We buy metal deposition. We do etch and implanters. It really comes down to a match. But a lot of times we are forced into the new space because there are no used tools that match.

SE: Can you give an example of that?

Wilson: Surprisingly, we have to go back to new vendors in many cases for lower tech pieces like wet benches. There isn’t really anyone that’s established in the used wet bench area. When it comes down to it, wet benches are not configurable like many of the other pieces of equipment.

SE: You’ve mentioned that select legacy ion implanters are in short supply. Can you elaborate?

Wilson: The ion implanters we are talking about are pretty specialized. We’re talking about VHE. There aren’t as many units out there.

SE: Do you buy used gear from the OEMs, used equipment firms, brokers or other avenues?

Wilson: All of the above. We will go to where the best tool match is. If we have choices, we have a preferred list of people we like to work with.

SE: How would you describe the used equipment market now?

Wilson: It is becoming more and more a tangled web of relationships. There are companies that are sub-contracting other companies. Or, in many cases, there are few experts on a toolset in the field. And they become a sub-contractor for many different companies. In addition, it’s not a straightforward business model. You might have some failures along the way. It’s changes quickly too. You have to keep up to date. The relationships with the companies change. People are key for the success in this. And they change. They change positions and companies.

SE: What are some of the guidelines when buying used gear?

Wilson: You need to be aware. You need to do your research. You need to know the source and verify the source. Sometimes, in particular, when you look at a web site, the ownership is a bit convoluted. You can be led to believe that somebody has ownership of a tool, when, in fact, they really don’t have ownership. Somebody else has it. Or it’s a pooled ownership and they are both trying to find buyers for it. So you have to understand who has the ownership and the documentation of the tool.

SE: What else is involved?

Wilson: We always want to do a site audit of the tool. So we want to see it and we want to see it run. You need to know your very specific equipment requirements in advance and make sure they are fully detailed and documented. This is down to the types of valves you want and what kind of pump you want on it. All of those things must be clearly spelled out.

SE: Anything else?

Wilson: You will need to understand who will be doing the refurbishment work. At times, this is being sub-contracted out to other parties. And you really need to understand who those parties are and their qualifications. And also, look for potential conflicts between that resource and other companies. We’ve found some instances where there is one sub-contractor who is doing work for three or four different companies. And you end up with a serious resource constraint.

SE: What’s the bottom line?

Wilson: When you have the opportunity to look at multiple tools, or go through different channels, you have a preferred source that you really trust.

SE: When do you source used tools from an OEM versus a third party?

Wilson: For us, it’s going to be our familiarity with a tool. If it’s a rev one tool, in which we don’t have much understanding as a company, we will want to buy that experience. The best experience that you can buy is from the OEM. You will have the most predictably from a project standpoint. You will probably have the least risk. You will probably get some better process and recipe support than you would from some third parties. Again, this is a big generalization, because some of these third parties may have as many experts as the OEM these days. Or the OEM has given up on a particular toolset. So the expertise may reside within these third parties.

SE: What about service?

Wilson: In a lot of legacy tools, there are fewer and fewer experts on these tools every year. And there is not a pipeline of new people coming up to become experts in these tools. So there are more people competing for limited talent and a limited set of resources. And that from our end is what seems to be increasing the amount of the complexity in this space.

SE: What about sourcing tools or parts from eBay?

Wilson: You need to very cautious. What you see on eBay may not necessarily be what you get or what you think you are going to get. Some things are represented as a new part, but they aren’t. Sometimes they are represented as an OEM or original part, and they are really not. You need to be very careful. At the same time, we’ve had a lot of successful examples from eBay. But we also had our fingers burned a few times.

SE: Does On Semi also sell used gear?

Wilson: We have a small group. When we have some tools to sell, they will work on selling them direct. After that, we will typically turn it over and get some help from a broker or one of the third parties.

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