Solid State Equipment LLC
Issue Jan Feb 14
Horsham, Pa.-based Solid State Equipment LLC (SSEC) designs and develops the machinery that makes semiconductor manufacturing possible. Its single wafer wet processing machinery targets market applications such as semiconductor advanced packaging (including 2.5D and 3D ICs), MEMS, compound semiconductor, front-end of line and back-end of line, photomasks and flat-panel displays. CEO Herman Itzkowitz, who started as the company’s chief technical officer 21 years ago, says that he has seen more than a few players fall out of the industry because of the inability to keep up with a fast-changing market.
“The product has to be changed constantly,” he says. “Customers have specific needs and markets move in different directions and so the equipment we make today is significantly different than what we made three years ago. It’s just part of the cycle. To stay in the semiconductor equipment business is to constantly innovate. Without that, there is no way to sell a three-year-old piece of equipment to a customer. When you look at today’s products, it doesn’t matter if it’s a TV, cellphone or computer, the electronics are different and to make that product, the capabilities of the equipment we sell have to be different.”
All one has to do is look at SSEC’s numbers to realize that the company has done well in keeping up with market demand. When Itzkowitz joined the company, it had 15 employees and $3 million in sales. In 2012, it boasted 120 direct employees, an integral network of suppliers and $80 million-plus in sales. The company has managed this growth by investing a significant portion of its overall budget into engineering, development and assembly.
“In order to develop this equipment, the skill required internally typically involves a broad array of disciplines like electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, software development and chemical engineering,” Itzkowitz explains. “So within the company, we have a well-staffed engineering department and lab department, which does all of the testing. We have manufacturing facilities that actually assemble the products and we have field service groups that deliver, install and get them running. All of the disciplines needed are here in our Philadelphia-area facility and we have field service offices throughout the world.”
More for Less
Consumer electronics get smaller and/or thinner every year while their computing power, storage and applications abilities continue to grow. It’s contrary to average thinking which assumes less space means less capabilities – unless, however, you are knowledgeable in quantum physics then it all makes perfect sense. The use of 3-D semiconductors is on the rise, and without them, everyday products such as smartphones wouldn’t even exist. Or perhaps they would, but the bulky size wouldn’t appeal to modern consumers. 3-D semiconductors allow manufacturers to layer more computing power and memory into a thinner device.
“The devices going into products now are 3-D devices, but up until a few years ago, they were built as flat devices,” Itzkowitz explains. “But as a 3-D device, they can pack in a lot more because they are stacked one on top of the other. The end-result is that the consumer gets additional capabilities and a longer-lasting battery.”
SSEC has stepped up its single wafer wet processing equipment to meet this new demand. Itzkowitz says material handling – the way the machine moves the wafer through the process and its etching capabilities – is a big focus of the company. Chemical handling, too, is a focus. SSEC has developed processes using artificial intelligence to make sure the chemicals used are mixed in exact quantities, distributed at exact times and recycled throughout the process.
“There is some level of customization for each client,” Itzkowitz says. “The product is standard and more graded to a particular end-product, which may be manufactured by Samsung, Intel or a contract manufacturer.”
From its 50,000-square-foot facility in Horsham, a network of local long-term suppliers and field offices throughout the world, SSEC is able to deliver the specifics requested by each customer. Half of SSEC’s business is based in Asian markets. The United States makes up 35 percent of its business and Europe the rest.
“One of the questions that often comes up is how can you be an American manufacturer and sell globally where labor costs are significantly lower, the regulatory environment is easier and there are many competitors working against you,” Itzkowitz says. “Being in Pennsylvania, the only way we can do that is to have the best product, be more creative and manufacture equipment that produces more with lower cost and less complexity.”