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The Rolling Stones Of Chipmaking

After 20 years, some machines are still cranking out the goodies. And there’s no end in sight.

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By Cheryl Knepfler
In 1993, when the Internet was mostly a science experiment, Applied shipped a new P5000 CVD system to the Motorola SPS (now Freescale) Oak Hill fab in Austin, Texas— where it was used to produce processors for Apple computers. A year later, Motorola installed its second P5000 system. Fast forward 20 years and you’ll find both tools on the production line and still running!

Together, the two P5000s have processed an astounding 4.4 million wafers—or over a billion chips. Continually modified and upgraded over the years with new hardware and software, these two tools have served a number of technology nodes and applications at Freescale.

The Oak Hill fab started production in 1991 and was the world’s first 200mm commercial facility. Today, the 80,000 square foot factory makes microcontrollers and MEMS-based sensors for automotive and other markets, as well as power management and radio frequency products for the wireless and networking markets.

We asked David Dent, an equipment engineer with Freescale who has worked with these tools for many years, how much longer he thinks these tools will run. “As long as they are able to produce the products we manufacture in a reliable and efficient manner, these tools will remain in production. They are workhorses,” said Dent.

Surprisingly, there’s still a lot of life in the market for 200mm systems. In its latest report (Q3 2012), market researcher IHS iSuppli estimates that 37% of the total number of wafers processed in 2012 will be 200mm. This percentage is expected to continue until at least 2016.

One of the most successful semiconductor manufacturing tools in history, the P5000 was inducted into the U.S. Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit on the Information Age for its importance to the evolution of the industry. It was one of the industry’s first single-wafer, multi-chamber cluster tools and the first to achieve widespread industry acceptance. Introduced in 1987, it leapt from market entry to leadership in less than a year. Within 5 years, more than 50 unique processes were available on the system. Its interface between the chambers and platform also defined robot movement and communications protocols for Applied’s future platform generations. Applied has shipped nearly 3,500 P5000 systems overall —processing somewhere in the region of a trillion total chips.

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—Cheryl Knepfler is product marketing manager at Applied Materials