- Vacuum system production requires 5-axis machine tools of the appropriate envelope.
- Leak-free chamber production requires expertise in machining, welding, cleaning, and testing methodologies.
- A contract manufacturer should have a written quality policy and be able to demonstrate its application through auditing.
Vacuum chamber technologies are the heart of many types of semiconductor fabrication and metrology tools. Many tool manufacturers outsource the fabrication of these custom chambers or vacuum systems as a single piece from a machine shop. Unfortunately, this leaves the subsequent high-level vacuum chamber assembly and integration squarely on the manufacturer’s shoulders. Along with that assembly comes the burden of facility space, tool maintenance, overhead, staffing and a host of other complications.
While it can be equally difficult to find a vertically integrated manufacturer that cannot only produce the chamber, but perform the higher-level assembly and integration, it can be of great value to the equipment manufacturer and in many cases solve time, cost and staffing issues inherent to in-house production. When looked at objectively, the question quickly shifts from, “Should we outsource high-level assembly?” to, “What is the best method for selecting a high-level assembler?”
A vertically integrated manufacturer can integrate the vacuum chamber technologies necessary to provide higher-level assemblies that can simplify the supply chain and streamline the factory floor. The benefits are clear; however, when investigating sources, there are some important aspects to look for in a contract manufacturer.
1. State-of-the-art machine tool technology
To be able to produce production vacuum chamber systems competitively, the CM must have five axis machine tools of the appropriate envelope. To get the most out of their machine tools, the CM should also have the proper CAM software.
2. Experience in vacuum technology
It takes time for an organization to develop the expertise involved in the machining, welding, cleaning, and testing to produce quality, leak-free chambers that can be pumped down to the required base pressures and pass leak testing protocols. The contract manufacturer must have a good theoretical and applied understanding of vacuum technology and be able to follow procedures, ensuring the proper manufacturing, cleaning, handling and testing of chambers. Metrology equipment, such as laser trackers and coordinate measuring machines, are critical for performing inspection accurately and efficiently. Vacuum technology should be a core competency of the CM.
3. Appropriate facilities
The CM should have environmentally controlled areas, clean rooms, segregated non-ferrous welding areas, as well as all necessary equipment such as residual gas analyzers, pumps, and helium leak testers to consistently produce and test vacuum chambers to specification.
4. Experience in electro-mechanical assembly and integration
In order to provide high-level assemblies that include frames; enclosures and electro-mechanical assemblies such as robotics modules, EFEMS, FOUPS loaders/unloaders, load locks, optomechanics and mechatronics, the contract manufacturer cannot be merely a machine/fabrication shop. Ideally, the CM is a true machinery/instrument manufacturer with knowledge concerning fits and finishes, torque requirements, clean room assembly, alignment, and precision motion.
5. Sophisticated global supply chain management
Since the vertically integrated CM cannot be competitive on every component of a high-level assembly, to provide the best value to the customer, they need to be able to efficiently procure machined and fabricated parts from outside suppliers. This must be done efficiently and leverage areas of the globe that have a comparative advantage for the types of parts and quantities needed. It’s also critical that the supply chain is organized and actively managed from a quality and performance standpoint.
6. Robust Quality System
The CM should have a written quality policy and be able to demonstrate its application through auditing. ISO 9001 is a good standard to look for in a supplier. If properly followed, it can ensure the conforming product is supplied to the customer on a consistent basis and that the supplier follows a path of continual improvement. Vacuum system work is precise, and to produce high vacuum and ultra-high vacuum chambers and assemblies consistently to specification, a supplier must have robust systems and procedures in place.
7. Engineering capabilities
It is important that the CM have deep electrical, mechanical and, if applicable, software/controls engineering capability. Even if the CM is producing a product “build-to-print” for a customer, engineering capabilities allowing for DFM and VA/VE activities that can be very effective in driving out COGS. The CM is also very well positioned with their experience building the equipment to assist in the co-development of next-generation equipment, performing drawing and documentation maintenance activities as well as executing sophisticated test protocols.
The landscape for outsourcing and contract manufacturing is ever-changing. Be diligent: Take the time to conduct a serious evaluation of the capabilities and experience an organization brings to the table prior to selecting your next manufacturing partner.