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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

For Applied Technology's customers, Saigal said, RFID provides assurance that the whereabouts of their new products are being monitored. "What is a customer wafer worth?" Saigal commented, adding, "The IP is worth millions." The companies are thus tagging boxes of wafers. RFID tags cannot be attached directly to the wafers themselves, he noted, since the tags are deemed too dirty to be taken into a "clean room" environment where Applied Materials tests the equipment it makes for fabricating chips from those wafers.

Chillers (coolers that Applied Materials uses during its processes) and other large equipment are also being tagged so the company knows if they are moved, and to what location. "Now we have control," Saigal stated. "We know exactly what we have in the lab." This, he added, enables the company to avoid purchasing new equipment that is not needed.

An electrostatic chuck with a Xerafy RFID tag embedded in its rim.
In selecting a solution, Applied Materials initially approached five RFID solution providers. "Two guys saw our problem and said they couldn't help," Saigal said. Three other companies, including Tagit, made offers, and Tagit was ultimately selected. According to Saigal, Applied Materials had been seeking a solution provider that would show some flexibility in providing a solution that could meet its specific needs, not just a copy of a system already provided to companies in other industries. "We're not a warehouse," he said. RF noise, for example, can pose a problem within the lab environment, with plasma-based work underway in the lab creating its own RF signal.

"You can't just jump into the whole thing," Saigal stated. "You have to plan it."

Tagit developed a solution consisting of Motorola Solutions handheld readers for inventory tracking, with RFID portals consisting of Alien Technology ALR-9900+ fixed readers installed at doorways. Confidex and Xerafy passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags are attached to all necessary equipment—about 1,700 items altogether—and Wi-Fi tags are attached to 10 percent of those of the highest value. Tagit's software interprets and manages all collected read data and provides a dashboard that presents such information as the quantity of assets on hand, their movements and which assets may require replacement. The Tagit software also identifies each item's location, using algorithms specific to this application.

When Applied Materials receives a piece of equipment or a target that it wishes to track, a worker attaches a passive UHF RFID tag to that item, or to the box in which it is stored. The tag's unique ID number is linked to the item itself in Tagit's software, residing on Applied Materials' back-end system. For example, targets—which store metal (such as aluminum, copper or gold) that is deposited onto wafers—can be difficult to track without RFID. The targets are about the size of a hockey puck and, when used, are inserted into the metal application system. The target can often be used more than once, so it must then be stored in such a way that it can be located and reused. Otherwise, it will need to be replaced. By applying an RFID tag to the target's storage box, Applied Materials can record every time that a target passes through a reader portal.

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