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080429: SAFC Hitech opens modular scalable plant
Ed’s Threads 080429
Musings by Ed Korczynski on April 29, 2008

SAFC Hitech opens modular scalable plant
A trusted supplier of specialty materials for semiconductor manufacturing must have great safety, control, and smarts. These specialty chemicals include precursors for growth and deposition, photoresist and slurry additives, as well as CMP, ECD, encapsulation, packaging and assembly, fuel cell, PV, and energy storage materials. Custom molecules must be specially design, assembled, refined, and packaged, and each step requires expert knowledge.

Part of Sigma-Aldrich, SAFC Hitech raked in >$70M of sales in 2007, ~$40M of which came from the Epichem business it acquired in February 2007. Epichem had established a unique business proposition as a total supply chain partner to compound semiconductor manufacturers, yet lacked the resources and expertise to scale up to silicon manufacturing scales.

SAFC has plenty of manufacturing scale, and now even more so with the $9M investment into a new production plant in beautiful Sheboygan, WI. Each plant is multipurpose and reconfigurable by design, with room for expansion depending upon demand. As a result, SAFC Hitech is uniquely positioned to be able to supply specialty materials on annual scales of hundreds of kilos to a few tons.

SAFC distillation columns in one safety-isolated “cell” in the new Sheboygan, WI specialty materials manufacturing plant. (Source: SAFC)

The facility has been designed with deep experience in the best practices of specialty chemicals production. Each “cell” in the facility (see Figure) is designed and constructed to ensure safety in setting up flexible capacity to purify highly toxic and reactive chemistries. A concrete cell is roughly the footprint of a standard trade-show booth (~10m2) with >5m ceilings to allow for tall columns. All potential spark sources are removed from each cell. Production manager James Bilitz noted that a bucket of alcohol could be thrown on the floor and it would not ignite.

The filling, packaging, and analysis facility was custom-designed from the ground up to ensure purity in packaging of ampules and tanks. Several innovative techniques eliminate as many sources of metallic contamination as possible: walls and ceilings formed from welded PVC, a custom vacuum oven to dry containers, and sophisticated purge/fill systems inside of custom UHPA hoods. A state-of-the-art mass-spectrometer is used to confirm that individual metal contamination levels are kept in the sub-parts-per-trillion range.

SAFC expects the construction and operational experiences learned with the new Sheboygan facility will provide a blueprint for future expansion in overseas markets, particularly in China and South Korea.

Geoff Irvine, SAFC Hitech's commercial development and marketing director, explained that chemical innovation will be needed more and more to allow the industry to move forward. “We have people in the CMP space and ARC space coming to us asking us to make specialty materials,’ he said, adding that the company also does “a lot of private label manufacturing.” Services offered range from molecular design to process development optimization/scale up and commercial manufacturing; analysis; raw material sourcing and characterization; and even things like vendor audits, hazard evaluation, packaging design, and regulatory filings.

Complex molecules can be toxic, explosive, unstable, and generally very tricky to work with when breaking them down in use, and it’s all more difficult when building them up through chemical synthesis pathways. Also, a molecule that breaks down in shipping or storage tends to form particles. ALD processes use highly reactive chemistries that instantly degrade if exposed to oxygen or water vapor, for example, so extremes of environmental control are needed in the chemical engineering of ALD precursors. “We go to great lengths to create wonderfully complex molecules which our customers destroy as soon as they get them,” quipped Peter Heys, SAFC Hitech R&D director and former head of Epichem.

The company is central to the semiconductor manufacturing industry with customers in precursor R&D as well as large-scale production, but if pressed to name just one core competency, “it’s our ability to handle difficult materials,” proclaimed SAFC president Frank Wicks. “For example, our high-potency materials have to be manufactured in glove boxes. People generally don’t like to work with these materials and that’s good for us.” It’s good for the whole industry that SAFC likes to do this ever more essential work.


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080429: SAFC Hitech opens modular scalable plant

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Ed's Threads is the weekly web-log of SST Sr. Technical Editor Ed Korczynski's musings on the topics of semiconductor manufacturing technology and business. Ed received a degree in materials science and engineering from MIT in 1984, and after process development and integration work in fabs, he held applications, marketing, and business development roles at OEMs. Ed won editorial awards from ASBPE, including interviews with Gordon Moore and Jim Morgan, and is not lacking for opinions.