SPTS: A Wild Ride to Success

A year ago, things weren’t looking so great for Aviza Technologies. According to Kevin Crofton, executive VP, SPTS and managing director of the UK division, the company was in Chapter 11, mainly because its thermal division in Scotts Valley was heavily DRAM focused and was deeply affected when that market collapsed. Then to add fuel to the fire, Qimonda, one of its main customers, went into bankruptcy and the group lost half its revenue in a very short time, a shortfall that the rest of the company could not replace. Meanwhile, Surface Technology Systems (STS) was holding its own through the downturn thanks to support from its Japanese parent company, Sumitomo Precision Products Co., Ltd (SPP) and increased R&D spending for the emerging markets it served (including MEMS where it had #1 market leadership position, 3DIC and compound semiconductors). But, according to Crofton, to compete in anything beyond MEMS, STS needed “critical mass.”

So SPP seized the opportunity to buy selected parts of Aviza, and merged it with STS to create SPP Process Technology Systems (SPTS). Mind you, this wasn’t a hostile takeover. Quite the opposite, it was more like bringing the family back together under one roof, where it belonged.

David Butler, VP of marketing, explained SPTS complicated heritage that reaches all the way back to 1968. It goes something like this. In 1968, Electrotech Equipment Ltd, manufacturer of PECVD, ICP and PVD tools is established in the UK. In 1984, the company forms a subsidiary, Special Research Systems (SRS), which is renamed STS 5 years later. In 1992, SPP becomes STS’ distributor in Japan, and then in 1995, SPP buys STS (floats 33% of its shares in AIM in 2001 and buys them back in 2007). In 1996, Plasma & Materials Technologies acquires Electrotech, (which by now is based in Newport, South Wales.) and forms Trikon Technologies. (Still with me?)

Meanwhile in 1988, across the pond (and the whole of North America) Silicon Valley Group (SVG) acquires Thermco and in 1999 acquires Watkins Johnson SEG. In 2001, ASML acquires SVG and establishes ASML Thermal, which in 2003 forms Aviza Technologies. (Here’s where it gets interesting.) Then in 2005, Trikon Technologies is acquired by Aviza.

All this to illustrate that essentially, both STS and Aviza UKs origins extend back to Electrotech. The story goes that SPP chairman, Susumu Kaminaga liked the idea of bringing all these originally related and complementary technologies back together, so SPP bought Aviza last year, merged it with STS and created SPTS. (Here’s a diagram, if you’re still confused.)

The newly formed company’s mission, according to Butler, is to be the market leader in its core competencies: PVD, CVD and etch, while continuing to support existing thermal customers with new and refurbished equipment. He added, “The thermal division is now taking advantage of the synergies with the UK business and expanding into more diverse markets such as 3D Packaging, MEMS and LED manufacturing, and is making a significant contribution to the Company’s bottom-line.”

SPTS sees no point in being 3rd or 4th, and always playing “catch up. So the company is very strategic, understanding where they fit best and putting their efforts there. “We focus on under-served niche markets, establishing stable long term relationships with our customers.” he said. In MEMS, it’s safe to say they are the market leader in etch for several reasons. First of all, Bosch developed the DRIE process using STS tools. “We had a four year head start on everyone else, selling approximately 100 DRIE tools before other equipment manufacturers entered this market.” says Butler. The top 10 MEMS manufacturers use SPTS tools, and the company estimates it has an 80% share in all deep silicon etch modules.

When it comes to TSV for 3D IC, SPTS tools can take on the DRIE, dielectrics, isolation, and barrier/ seed steps in the TSV fabrication process flow. The metal fill step is not currently on their roadmap. As Crofton explained, all their tools are plasma based process tools; while it may seem a natural fit to add the last metallization step; it’s outside the company’s core competency. As it stands, all of SPTS processes capabilities can be put on one system. For example, The Versalis fxP is an integrated TSV option that is well suited to the R&D phase, explained Butler. Originally an Aviza concept, it handles etch, DCVD, and metallization on one platform. This saves on initial capex, footprint and install. Later, a company can move to dedicated tools for production. This approach is designed to appeal to SPTS’ target customers for 3D IC; namely, the packaging fabs and OSATS who are starting from scratch with TSV process tools.

As ownership of TSV via first, mid, and last processes become clearer, with front-end fabs like TSMC and IDMS gearing up for via-first and via-mid, SPTS’ opportunity and strategy also becomes clear. “We think we’ve got a fairly significant position in via last,” says Crofton, “The question is how we carve out via mid applications. We won’t be competitive in via first.”He explained that via-first applications will leverage already existing capacity using traditional front-end processes. TSMC and the IDMS (Intel, IBM, Samsung, etc) will use equipment they already have.

Their strategy seems to be working. According to Butler, SPTS provides etch and dielectric deposition systems for ST Microelectronics’ CMOS image sensors, the first application to go to volume production using via last processes. They have tools in three of the six major R&D institutes including Leti, ITRI, and Fraunhofer IZM for the ASSID program. And as they say, the proof is in the profits. The company recently reported a 200% increase in revenue in the first half of 2010 compared to the combined results of the separate companies in the same period in 2009. Based on VSLI Research’s analysis, the company is growing twice as fast as the regular equipment market. “We’re growing faster than anyone because the markets we have selected to serve are growing so fast,” notes Butler. Of course with any merger, no matter what family heritage you share, there are always kinks to be ironed out; for example, combining two teams into one, or in some cases two tools into one. One example was the best way to handle the etch tool overlap. Clearly, STS’ flagship Pegasus DRIE module dominated in the area of MEMS process know-how. So the solution was to combine the hardware and process knowledge of both the Pegasus and Aviza’s 300mm DSi etch tool to get the best of both worlds. This next-generation 300mm DRIE tool was renamed Pegasus DSi, and they are taking orders for this new module.

And where does SPP fit into all of this? Butler explains that mostly, SPP acts as an overseeing entity, and SPTS runs itself. SPTS is contained within one of six groups that make up SPP, which is one of 36 companies that make up the House of Sumitomo, a Japanese entity. All Sumitomo companies try to adhere to the companies’ three core philosophies:

  • Never buy on credit
  • Never buy goods below normal market price.
  • Never lose your temper, politely explain your position It’s the last of these that have helped guide this wild ride to a safe landing.

“It’s a nice outcome,” comments Butler,” We’ve got this Japanese parent with long term vision that supports us between bursts of technology.” Although this is not something they rely on or take advantage of, he adds, it’s just nice to know it’s there when you need it. Like a family.

Visit sponsored by: