SAN JOSE, Calif. In what could simultaneously lower chip-testing costs and turn the industry upside down, a consortium in the automatic test equipment (ATE) field has expanded its charter, by pushing for new test-interface and probe-card standards.
The Semiconductor Test Consortium (STC)--an ATE organization backed by Advantest, Intel, and others--hopes to narrow down and standardize what appears to be a plethora of proprietary solutions in these smaller but critical ATE sectors. The STC, which has two working groups in the arena, will present the first details of its work to member companies this week.
Two years ago, Intel, Advantest, Motorola and others co-founded the STC. Its aim is to devise an "open architecture" for ATE, which would enable the development of "plug-and-play" modules for testers, thereby lowering the soaring cost of IC test.
Other issues plague ATE. Today, ATE buyers must procure a tester, along with a separate and proprietary probe-card and test-interface product. The problem is that there are some 200-to-300 proprietary, expensive probe-card configurations in the market. Each configuration requires a separate test-interface product or socket, which fits between the test head and probe card in an ATE machine.
While officials from the STC claim their efforts will reduce test costs, suppliers of proprietary probe cards and ATE interface sockets may resist the move to standardize these technologies. And competitive ATE vendors besides Advantest could also dismiss the STC's standardization efforts. Advantest is the only major ATE vendor in the STC, it was noted.
Standardization could turn these products into commodities, thereby fueling a shakeout among the supplier base. Still, the longstanding model of buying proprietary ATE, probe cards, and test-interface tooling is expensive--and perhaps over, said Mark Roos, a board member of STC and chief executive of RF-test equipment maker Roos Instruments Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.)
By moving towards industry standards, chip makers can simply lower their chip-testing costs, Roos said. "What the industry is doing is saving itself," he said in an interview at the Semicon West trade show in San Jose last week.
Contrary to popular belief, the tester is not the most expensive part of ATE, said Steve Martinez, a board member of STC and strategic business development manager for test at Japanese chip-equipment giant Tokyo Electron Ltd. (TEL). Tokyo-based TEL makes semiconductor equipment, including probers.
Test-interface tooling is the most expensive part of ATE, followed by the tester, labor, and then the prober, Martinez said. TEL, for example, has some 30 full-time employees alone, which are working with customers to develop ATE tooling and interfaces.
Probe cards are also a stumbling block. "I have 200 different interfaces that I support for probe cards," he said. "There is no standardization."
Probing the standard
According to Roos, the STC has not hammered out new standards for test-interface and probe-card products. For some time, though, TEL and rival Japanese prober vendor Tokyo Seimitsu Co. (TSK) have been devising standards within two working groups at the STC.
Roos envisions a world with perhaps three probe-card configurations, including 300-, 350-, and 400-mm products in terms of diameter sizes. The cards themselves would perform a specific function, such as memory test and mixed signal.
The move towards test-interface and probe-card standards has also generated strong interest among suppliers of these products, Roos said. Electroglas, MCT, Reid Ashman, and others are set to join the STC, according to the organization.
C. Scott Kulicke, chairman and chief executive at Kulicke & Soffa Industries Inc. (K&S), said he is in favor of standardization to lower test costs, but he did not indicate if K&S has joined the STC. K&S makes wirebonders, probe cards, test interfaces and other products.
"The test-interface business has been a cottage industry," he said, noting that the industry is expected to move from proprietary to commodity solutions. "That's what we want," he said at a press event at Semicon West last week.
Resistance in paradise
Not all vendors are expected to embrace test-interface and probe-card standards, according to analysts. Standardization is expected to reduce vendors' product margins, according to analysts.
And still others have their own, internal efforts in the arena. "Teradyne has a major standardizing effort (in test-interface products)," according to Martinez of TEL.
Still, standardization is a do-or-die matter for the ATE industry, which is struggling to reduce the soaring costs of test. "Test costs keep going up and people want to do less of it," Kulicke said.