As the cutting edge of semiconductor design may help our smartphones diagnose our health in real-time, will connecting our refrigerators to the Internet of Things require them to be smart enough to play chess with us, too?
Tokyo Electron (TEL), one of the largest makers of semiconductor production equipment, thinks the answer is no, and that its customer installed base of over 59,000 chip-making platforms is poised to bring IoT functionality to a variety of devices. How it came to that insight meant innovating its perspective, and then building an entirely new business model.
“We focused our business on cutting-edge equipment maybe 15-20 years ago,” said Kevin Chasey, TEL’s SVP of Field Service & Support in the U.S., noting that the company is currently wrestling with challenges like 7 nanometer chip manufacturing, which could require entirely new designs and materials.
“In the past, when customers approached us about a used tool opportunity, we farmed that business to third parties,” which provided its customers with both parts support and other services.
Then two things changed: A vision for the Internet of Things began to emerge during the first decade of the 21st century, which presented a potentially vast need for chips, and the challenges facing the global economy made it necessary to keep older manufacturing platforms functioning longer, especially for medium and small companies that don’t have the budgets of larger ones.
“We started getting more requests from customers looking to use their tools more effectively.”
In late 2009, TEL created a new division to analyze its older installed base and, according to Chasey, discover how to best support it. The business unit, called Field Solutions (FSBU), found a potentially immense opportunity: Customers were looking for help with new configurations to meet emergent needs for IoT devices, and replacement parts that might not be readily available.
It also saw that the company’s broad experience with the functions of its machinery – everything from developing sophisticated code and process controls, to reactive-ion surface etching, precision-movement robotic probers, and advanced packaging for end-user customers – could enable it to innovate better and faster production solutions.
“We can talk CLEAN TRACK series or how to run BKM tools with insights pulled from our entire install base,” Chasey explained. “FSBU also has performance/fail data spanning a decade or more, so we can bring predictive maintenance to their tools.”
TEL hosts a call center for its legacy service (last year it opened a center in Japan), and has developed TELeMetrics, a tool that allows it to monitor the condition of its customers’ platforms in real time.
“We’re able to dispatch a skilled engineer as soon as we’re contacted, and our data provides us the ability to get to work quicker, and thereby shorten the cycle.”
Chasey said the company is also finding linkages to its cutting-edge development work, as those solutions could yield ways for its legacy customers to optimize their tools.
Tokyo Electron hopes to “break the silicon cycle” of industrial obsolescence by offering such enhanced support, according to a story earlier this year in the Nikkei Asian Review.
“Think of the Amazon model,” Chasey added. “We’re transforming our services to make it simpler, and thereby easier for our customers to focus on the benefits.