WASHINGTON -- Even as Taiwan foundries and chip makers claim they are restoring full fab capacity after last week's earthquake, they are facing major production hurdles in replacing untold numbers of critical quartz tubes and boats needed in furnace processing, according to global suppliers.
Many quartzware vendors said this week that they have been swamped by inquiries from Taiwan fabs trying to replace tubes and boats damaged in the powerful quake. The quartz products were already in critically short supply before the Taiwan tremor because of the recent upsurge in global chip production.
Quartzware suppliers said they will be hard-pressed to ramp up quickly to meet the added onslaught of Taiwan orders.
Roger Wood, vice president operations for Tosoh Quartz Group's U..S..subsidiary in Portland, Ore., said most quartzware makers had sharply scaled back during the last two year's downturn. These supplier must find scarce skilled workers to build back staffs that had been cut back sharply, he added. The "instant order" avalanche from Taiwan is the equivalent of more than 30 new fabs coming on line all wanting quartzware at once, Wood added.
Won Ik Quartz Group, which has a manufacturing facility in Taiwan, could not meet immediate demand by the quake-impacted fabs and was pressing the firm's U.S. subsidiary, based in Morgan Hills, Calif., for any available inventory that could be shipped.
The task of finding enough quartz tubes and boats for full production in fabs is the major choke-point for Taiwan chip makers, said Danny Lam, an analyst and director of Fisher-Holstein Inc. in Wilimington, Del.
"Even when the fabs restore equipment to full operating capability, they must replace the damaged quartzware to resume producing at full capacity," Lam observed.
Earlier this week, Dataquest in San Jose warned that shortage of quartz could be the major hurdle Taiwan fabs must surmount before they are back in full production. The quartzware shortage shortage could cause some fabs to sit idle, warned analyst Jim Handy of Dataquest, which believes some plants could find it difficult to resume production at the levels prior to last week's earthquake because of material shortages and problems with fab gear (see Sept. 29 story).
Quartz boats hold large numbers of wafers -- up to 126 in the largest configurations -- while substrates are processed in chemical deposition chambers. These chambers also have quartz liners, called tubes, to protect the wafers during the extremely high-temperature processing.
Tosoh's Wood said quartz boats and tubes are cracked and damaged even in normal processing, but they would be unusually susceptible to damage in the jostling and shaking of a major earthquake. If backup power generation didn't switch on quickly after the quake, the loss of heat in the furnaces would soon crack the sensitive quartz parts, he added.
The extent of quartzware damage in Taiwan fabs hasn't been disclosed by the semiconductor companies. A few have indicated they lost several hundred quartz boats and tubes. Analyst Lam said a similar scale of quartz loss could be expected at almost all of the Taiwan fabs.
The feverish market search for replacement quartzware by Taiwan fabs would also indicate fairly high losses, Woods noted. Wafer fabs typically keep a small backup inventory of most-widely used quartz boats to replace normal breakage. However, boats come in many widely-varying configurations, and more specialized types could be much harder to replace. Quartz tubes in furnaces, which don't have the same level of breakage in normal operations, typically would have few spares on hand.
It takes quartz boat and tube manufacturers roughly a week--sometimes two for more special products--to produce boats and tubes. But the quartzware firms claimed they are facing their own shortage of obtaining enough raw material.
The sudden influx of Taiwan orders is expected to swamp the materials market, causing further delay in producing large quantities of new quartz items.
Vendors also warned that the instant demand from Taiwan must also fight for their strained capacity along with the rapidly escalating orders from other global chip makers. "There is going to a tight supply and prices are certainly going to rise," Woods predicted.