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Automation Breathes New Production Life Into Old Chip-Making Fabs

As the U.S. invests in the domestic semiconductor industry, existing fabs with space limitations can easily incorporate the latest robot automation.

Pjeter Lulgjuraj
March 28, 2023
Reading Time: 3 min.
In order to become more independet of semiconductor manufacturers, many see little alternative but to begin re-establishing the U.S. domestic semiconductor industry. Now there’s a new round of federal funding designed to return semiconductor fabs to American soil, and automation will be an essential component of that effort. Whether utilized in new facilities or in retrofitting older existing fabs in particular, automation will enable increased yields with existing labor forces, reduced production errors and increased process reliability.

Challenges of automating existing fabs

There are some 60 existing semiconductor plants in America, all of which will have new opportunities to automate and ramp up production. Unfortunately, many of these fabs are either unaware that they can integrate the latest automation technology into their production or feel that doing so would be cost prohibitive. Those perceptions are not only costly but possibly fatal from a business standpoint. The fact is, legacy fabs must either adapt with automation or die.
LBR iiwa
In the older 200mm fabs, a major obstacle facing many existing fabs is insufficient ceiling height for an Overhead Transport (OHT) or fab layouts not suited for automation. An OHT is essentially an overhead conveyor that moves wafer boxes from one place to another throughout the factory. However, KUKA provides a wafer handling solution in the form of cleanroom (ISO Class 3 Certified) mobility platforms that completely automate material handling and machine tending in fabs with layout restrictions or very high-mix production or complement an existing OHT by increasing the reach of automated transport.
LBR iiwa

Today’s automation for yesterday’s fabs

The KMR iiwa is a nimble, flexible, autonomously navigating robot that moves wafer boxes safely through production. It combines the strengths of the sensitive LBR iiwa seven-axis cobot with those of a mobile, autonomous platform that is location independent and highly adaptive.

The LBR iiwa specializes in delicate work with a payload capacity of 7-14 kg. It can be taught via touch control, and its position and compliance control detect contact immediately to reduce force and speed. The cobot’s special joint torque sensors on each axis make it highly sensitive to its environment, allowing safe operation without protective fencing as external contact causes it to stop immediately, making it ideal for mixed environments where operators and automation must coexist.

The KMR iiwa provides existing fabs with a highly flexible, trackless production assistant that runs on the factory floor, detects obstacles in its path and moves in any direction from a regardless of its current state, without stopping. Additionally, this mobile solution provides uninterrupted service by utilizing inductive charging technology that allows it to charge while passing over a charging station during processes like picking-and-placing.
KMR iiwa CR

Existing fabs incorporating solutions such as the KUKA KMR iiwa will realize immediate benefits.

KMR iiwa CR
First, autonomous mobility and production fill the present workforce gap. Secondly, the solution eliminates the necessity for a human to push carts and perform repetitive and monotonous material transport tasks. Repetition can lead to boredom, and boredom leads to mistakes. Cleanroom errors are expensive and costly. Lastly, robotic automation increases speed for improved production. Humans are limited in terms of the number of pods that can be handled in a 12-hour shift. Robots, however, continue production all day without breaks or interruptions.
For uninterrupted, accurate, cleanroom operations, the 6-axis KUKA KR AGILUS CR is available with an ISO 2 certification for tasks ranging from cleaning pods to storing reticles and packaging operations. and designed for maximum repeatability and continuous precision with extreme speed. Other production solutions include the KR SCARA (Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm) with cycle times of only 0.36 seconds for 500mm reach and 0.38 seconds for 700 mm arm lengths. The ISO 5-certified cleanroom SCARA carries a maximum payload of 12 kg, and its IP54 protection class ensures a particle-free clean environment.
Given the right solution, existing fabs with space limitations can easily incorporate the latest robot automation at a fraction of the cost and effort of implementing an OHT. What might be a more complex challenge, however, is overcoming the idea that automating is cost prohibitive. The issue, however, is not whether automation is a viable option but whether an existing fab can survive without it.
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