Guaranteeing Stable, Dependable Sources
Richard Stevenson catches up with Steven Buerkel, President of Applied Energy Systems, and quizzes him on what it takes to be a successful provider of gas supply equipment to the compound semiconductor industry.
Q. What do you believe to be the greatest accomplishment of Applied Energy Systems?
A. It has been growing the company to a size where we have a very diverse and experienced engineering team. When we get these chemical delivery or gas challenges, we can immediately understand the challenges with regard to two-phase flow issues, heat of vaporisation issues, low vapour pressure problems, and that kind of thing. We have to be on top of all of that, because the III-V industry, and the compound semiconductor industry in general, is pushing the old frontiers in terms of chemical delivery and mass flow rates.
Q. Do you have critical IP in gas delivery that is of significant benefit for the compound semiconductor industry?
A. We are at the lower-technology end with regard to device manufacturing. How can we make sure that we can help our customers? By making sure that we do not generate any problems for them, or cause a gas or liquid delivery issue that could impact process performance. So we are continually reviewing our designs and software and implementing improvements.
There are things that we will be launching later this year, in terms of predictive analysis and self-diagnosis, to make sure that our customers don't have to reach out to us in a middle of a run because there is some issue with our equipment operation. Maybe there is a seat problem in a valve, maybe there is an unacceptable decay in the supplied pressure due to a component issue or a decay in the vapour pressure. So the idea is to catch that point of failure early on, so you can schedule maintenance, rather than shut down in the middle of a run. Perhaps through direct access to iPads or cell-phones, we will be able to notify facility engineers, so that they can make sure there are no problems supplying the chemicals and gases to the MOCVD tools.
I challenged my team as recently as this morning to generate a timeline for a new launch for this. I'm targeting Q3 this year. It's going to be rather transformational in our industry, but it requires a lot of R&D investment. But that's the way it has to be. Anybody can put a regulator on a cylinder and deliver 100 litres of helium a minute. That's not a technical challenge.
Q. What are your customers looking for from you?
A. They want us to deliver a product that will not cause any issues. We've been doing this for 30 years now, and I have a very experienced team. All of our customers know us, and an significant amount of our business is repeat business, because customers just have confidence in our product.
Q. What is the key figures of merit when it comes to gas delivery for the compound semiconductor industry?
A. It's maintaining flow rates, and making sure you have uninterrupted delivery issues. A lot of times we have to heat cylinders, maintain vapour pressures, and make sure we don't have two-phase flow issues. We don't want anybody to make a phone call: Hey, Steve, we have a problem here. They are the things that I lose sleep over. Do I lose sleep a couple of nights a year? Possibly. But usually I'll find out that it's some anomaly, outside of our control.
Q. I presume that one of the key moves that you see in the industry is companies moving to higher flow rates, so they can reduce growth times. Is one of your goals to help the chipmakers by being able to deliver faster rates of flow, but maintain that uniformity?
A. I'm not sure of the market drivers, but with regard to new developments, this seems to be where we have on-going challenges. Larger flows, either supporting more tools with one source, flowing more for each tool, or runs becoming longer. We seem to be challenged every year with the higher flow rates on more-difficult-to-flow material. But we've gotten good at that. So I embrace that. We look at our Mollier charts, and make sure we don't have a risk for two-phase flow during adiabatic expansion, and all that kind of stuff.
Q. You serve many different industries. Why is the compound semiconductor industry important to you?
A. Well, first of all it is intriguing and very exciting. It's that excitement of watching the technology mature, develop and get pushed by price points and performance continuously. I don't even know when the race is going to end, but it's fascinating. Our company gets a great sense of pride and accomplishment helping our customers and delivering more than is expected. We provide direct access to all of our engineers.
It's also an industry I happen to know as I have worked since the mid-eighties with the MOCVD team at AT&T in Murray Hill and Crawford Hill, New Jersey, so I saw this excitement when they were developing the early technical breakthroughs.
Q. Are you facing competition from emerging companies in China, offering gas delivery? And if so, what will give you an edge over them?
A. We had a presence in China for a while. It's very difficult for me. We're just 75 employees "“ we're not a multi-international, like Air Products, although we do have a strong presence in some countries with local representation such as India and Israel, and also ship to such countries as Turkey, Norway, Germany, Taiwan among others. I tried to develop a market in China, but it was difficult and I abandoned it to focus on the US, and on some other markets that are more accessible to us.
I don't see those products coming over here. But never say never.
Right now we're at capacity, and trying to find the right experienced talent to grow through 2020 and beyond. Experience is difficult to find so we are hiring younger engineers, and then mentor them for three to five years. It is difficult to increase capacity by 20 percent in a technical market.
Q. From your perspective, is the compound semiconductor industry in good health?
A. I don't have a good understanding of the market drivers in the compound semiconductor fields. We seem to have continuous demand in this sector and keep waiting for the forecast explosion in, for instance, the power markets, but have yet to see a significant upswing.
I know that San'an took it on themselves to enlarge their reactors and improve efficiency by a significant percentage, which has relaxed demand for perhaps fifty or hundred or more machines. That's a significant amount. At $1.5 or $2 million a piece, that could be a $200 million impact on what would have been a capital acquisition from the major supplier. Some of the laser guys are expanding. But that is just one tool here or a couple of tools there. It's not like a hundred tools in a new fab for LED manufacturing. The tool manufacturers have a better sense for the market growth here than I do.
Q. How much interest are you seeing from the developers and producers of GaN power electronics?
A. Power electronics is growing at double-digit compound annual growth rates in terms of devices, and we do have some of our customers in this market spending on facility capital improvements. But not as much as forecast. Two or three years ago, they were forecasting very large capital growth in this industry, and I haven't seen it.
One company said that two or three years ago that they were going to put in ten or fifteen reactors, and they put in one.
Q. Are there any other sectors within the compound semiconductor industry that are showing significant promise?
A. There are some solar cell companies doing some interesting things. One in California, owned by a Chinese parent, is growing III-V solar cells on large areas. They have very high flows of a very toxic liquefied gas, so the challenge there is understanding the thermodynamics, making sure we don't have any cylinder cross flows due to thermodynamic differences and some other operational risks. We know ammonia pretty well now. We supply equipment for anything up to 1000 litres a minute.