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Applied Materials Inc. Tracks Assets, Protects Intellectual Property

The company is using passive RFID to track assets and tools at its California Metal Deposition laboratory, and a Wi-Fi-based RTLS to capture the locations of high-value items in real time.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 17, 2014

California semiconductor-equipment manufacturer Applied Materials is gradually expanding a hybrid system that includes passive RFID tags and real-time location system (RTLS) technology to better manage where its equipment is located, as well as the compliance of its calibration procedures. The technology also enables the firm to better protect the intellectual property (IP) of its clients, by tracking in real time the exact locations of those clients' products—typically, new semiconductors in the form of silicon wafers that Applied Materials uses to test the equipment it makes for those companies. The entire system—both hardware and software—was provided by Tagit Solutions.

Applied Materials, located in Santa Clara, manufactures equipment used in the production of semiconductors. At the Metal Deposition Products Group, the company creates tools used for depositing the necessary metals onto silicon wafers. The process of building these deposition tools requires highly sophisticated and expensive equipment.

Applied Materials installed RFID readers and antennas at various doorways on its premises.
Assets—such as targets (used to transfer metal to wafers), electrostatic-chucks (which hold wafers in place during the lithography process) and power supplies—used to make or test those tools are valued in the tens of thousands (or even millions) of dollars. Therefore, losing any item is a major cost to the company. In addition, the firm needs to track its inspections and tests for equipment that must be calibrated on a regular basis, and to enable its inspectors to quickly locate the tools requiring calibration. Finally, the ability to easily track and locate the high-value equipment makes it possible for Applied Materials to receive tax credits for a depreciated piece of equipment over time that it would not otherwise be able to claim without the technology to track equipment usage with in the lab.

The technology that makes all this possible includes both handheld and fixed RFID readers for tracking items fitted with EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags, as well as active Wi-Fi tags that transmit information to the company's existing Wi-Fi nodes. The technology was first installed four years ago as a very basic solution consisting of handheld readers, as well as tags affixed to a few items, so the company could begin tracking inventory in small numbers. Keeping the initial installation simple ensured that the solution would be up and running within six weeks, says Sandee Mukherjee, Tagit Solutions' VP of business development. Applied Materials followed up with installing approximately seven fixed readers at doorways, and then added the RTLS functionality for tracking about 10 percent of its highest-value or most critical assets, along with customer IP. The company is now in the process of adding additional readers. Dinesh Saigal, the senior manager at Applied Materials' application laboratory, described the installation at this year's RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition, held in April in Orlando, Fla. (see Smarter Operations in High Tech With RFID).

During his presentation, Saigal explained that his company must track test and measurement equipment in order to ensure ISO compliance. With RFID tags applied to the equipment, he explained, the inspectors who use those items can quickly locate them when needed.

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