Breakthrough MOCVD System Provides Cutting-edge Dual-use Capability
Agnitron leverages PC-based control and EtherCAT technology to create a more modular design for semiconductor research and production
Improving the design and production of high-voltage switches in both consumer electronics and defense technologies for ships and aircraft, the semiconductor compound gallium oxide (Ga2O3) promises extensive and exciting benefits across the electronics industries. However, the capabilities of this ultra-wide band gap compound must first be proven by researchers, such as Dr. Sriram Krishnamoorthy, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah.
“A required large-scale research effort is now beginning in the U.S.,” Krishnamoorthy says. “The University of Utah and Washington State University are part of the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the Multidisciplinary Research Program within the University Research Initiative (MURI) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. These collaborative organizations examine the fundamentals of doping and defects in gallium oxide.” Leading researchers from Ohio State University, University of California Santa Barbara, Cornell University and Georgia Institute of Technology have teamed up to study the fundamental material science of gallium oxide for AFOSR MURI, Krishnamoorthy adds.
One limitation for this kind of research is the quality of available Metal Organic Chemical Vapor Deposition (MOCVD) machines, which might not meet customization, price or reliability requirements to handle gallium oxide properly. While exploring new systems, Krishnamoorthy discovered the Agilis platform from the compound semiconductor research and development company Agnitron. Since the design process began in 2015, the goal for Agilis has been to support customizable hardware and control through the Imperium-MOCVD™ software from Agnitron, but the company recently released an unprecedented dual-use machine that can grow multiple semiconductor material types.
With minor adjustments over a few days, the dual-use Agilis can switch from growing beta gallium oxide to III-nitride materials – something no other MOCVD machine currently offers. “This provides an incredible value for researchers,” says Ivan Yunchyk, director of controls and automation for Agnitron. “If clients in research and development require funding, they can now pursue grants and funding opportunities on more than one material system as a result of the dual-use system, increasing their odds of success.”
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Based in Chanhassen, Minnesota, Agnitron works to expand MOCVD machine modularity to better serve end users in research and development and at small to medium-size production facilities. Andrei Osinsky, president and CEO of Agnitron, founded the company in 2008 because many MOCVD machine builders had begun to focus primarily on large industry trends, such as LEDs, ignoring smaller scale developments. “Agnitron was formed to supply solutions to market segments with unmet needs for new equipment and services,” Osinsky says. “While our initial efforts focused on refurbishing legacy systems, Agnitron has since become a leader in product development, creating new approaches, capabilities and systems to grow complex semiconductor materials.”
The company has produced Agnitemp™ in situ metrology and completed its own research into beta gallium oxide applications. All of these advancements strengthen Agnitron’s refurbishment and retrofit businesses as well as new equipment innovations.
Customizable systems deliver reliability, cost-effectiveness
The challenges of creating a dual-use MOCVD platform and refurbishing legacy systems are similar: While cost and reliability are key, the design process begins and ends with modularity. From software to individual components, the machines must easily adapt to unique customer requirements, whether that means additional HMI features, increased I/O count or enhanced processing power. The machine must communicate in real-time with existing systems in a lab or production facility. For Agnitron, this includes enabling development-reactor and showerhead designs for high quality material production and rapid growth rates. “Supporting these MOCVD processes is key for scaling the technology to make it commercially successful,” Krishnamoorthy explains, adding this was an issue with Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) systems he used previously in research projects.
Cost adds another complicating factor. New MOCVD systems can easily surpass $1 million. Even considering the dual-use capability of Agilis, it requires a significant capital investment for Agnitron customers, who typically do not possess the kinds of budgets that giant semiconductor manufacturers do. However, data acquisition requirements continue to increase for customers in both research and, especially, production to meet high quality standards and adhere to growth recipes. As a result, Yunchyk explains, it is important to add functionality and processing power without increasing the price point and dramatically changing the system design: “We are in a cost-competitive market. It benefits us to provide versatile solutions at the lowest prices possible, but every component must be highly reliable and repeatable at the same time.”
Reliability in the world of semiconductors means that new components maintain the deposition recipes exactly as the legacy systems did while providing greater dependability, according to Dr. Dmitri Volovik, senior principal engineer for Agnitron. “The biggest compliment in this industry is for the customer to say a machine works exactly as it worked before,” Volovik says. “It takes these customers years of development work and millions of dollars to define processes, so they want new systems that can be programmed to maintain the semiconductor recipe exactly with no unplanned downtime.” In fact, when Agnitron encountered reliability issues with a previous vendor’s automation and control systems, the company was on the verge of losing customers until Yunchyk and Volovik began to explore new solutions from Beckhoff Automation.
Modular hardware simplifies systems
Under pressure to find a reliable and open solution, Agnitron experts visited the U.S. headquarters of Beckhoff in nearby Savage, Minnesota. Dennis Sowada, regional sales manager for Beckhoff, thought it was clear at the first meeting that the two companies would work well together. “The similar philosophies of the companies, with regards to innovation through flexible technologies, made Beckhoff and Agnitron an obvious match,” Sowada says. The final selling point was the free technical support provided by Beckhoff engineers over the phone and in person. “Having freely available support from knowledgeable local engineers is reassuring,” Sowada adds. “However, Agnitron rarely relies on outside support now that they have grown so familiar with Beckhoff hardware and software.”
In an industry where many machines still use separate PLCs and PCs, PC-based controllers provided key competitive advantages for Agnitron. With modularity in mind, the Agilis system offers two distinct solutions: The Beckhoff CX2042 Embedded PC with a quad-core, 2.2 GHz Intel® Xeon® processor and the CX2040 Embedded PC with a quad-core, 2.1 GHz Intel® Core™ i7 processor.
“We offer the CX2040 configuration to meet the needs of research and development customers,” Volovik says. “However, our growing clientele in the production market required higher RAM and processing speed. Our Imperium software and SQL database must run on the same hardware, so to support more complex operations with greater data collection and the metrology requirements of Agnitemp, the CX2042 with its Xeon® processor and 1 terabyte solid state SSD drive was the optimal controller for round-the-clock production environments.”
Reliable software preserves recipes for new and legacy MOCVD systems
Agnitron Imperium control software takes full advantage of TwinCAT 3 automation software from Beckhoff and the real-time Windows kernel. The time-critical diagnostic, safety and process control tasks are executed by the TwinCAT real-time kernel with the tasks assigned to different cores of a multi-core Intel Xeon processor. These tasks continue to execute even if the Imperium software is closed by the user or is interrupted for any reason. The Imperium recipe and routines execution runs outside the Imperium software itself and is controlled by the TwinCAT real-time kernel, as it would be in a typical hardware PLC system. The speed, reliability and multi-core capabilities of the modern Intel processors allow for unprecedented real-time task cycle times and performance.
This approach leads to two product offerings. First is a complete portfolio of OEM MOCVD solutions, designed and manufactured for various materials and processes. Second is a stand-alone upgrade control package for a variety of legacy machines that run outdated and unsupported hardware and software. With combined technologies from Agnitron and Beckhoff, the upgraded controls for legacy equipment support both analog and digital devices simultaneously and provide seamless control software reconfiguration to reflect the upgraded hardware, such as digital mass flow controllers (MFCs), pressure controllers, pressure transducers and pneumatic valve actuators.
Using TwinCAT 3 automation software as the engineering environment and runtime on the Embedded PCs allows Agnitron engineers to write the machine control logic in C# using Microsoft Visual Studio while accessing the TwinCAT runtime and I/O system. As a Windows-based device, the Embedded PC also allows them to install the Imperium control software and save data locally. Yunchyk says this enables machine customization without developing entirely new code: “TwinCAT not only streamlines our setup of a unique system, but it also supports the customer’s ability for their own customization in the field if they wish. Imperium was designed with a configurable concept that allows engineers to reconfigure a control software package for a tool through a series of menus without reprogramming anything. That directly relates to the modularity of Beckhoff solutions.”
EtherCAT systems boost networking capabilities while reducing space
The real-time networking capability of EtherCAT provides further benefits for the Agilis. High-density EL3318 EtherCAT Terminals connect Agilis to eight different thermocouples per terminal, which is crucial when working with beta gallium oxide and other complex semiconductor materials. These, along with 16-channel I/O terminals, maintain a compact footprint. “Space becomes incredibly tight inside control cabinets, especially on smaller R&D systems,” Volovik says. “The compactness of both EtherCAT I/O and the Beckhoff Embedded PCs makes a big difference.”
As with TwinCAT 3, EtherCAT makes it easier to commission units and customize them in the field, and its flexibility to connect with legacy DeviceNet equipment is no small part. EtherCAT has become the leading semiconductor industry network and is a SEMI standard today, but DeviceNet was the industry’s widely accepted standard previously. The EL6752 DeviceNet Master/Slave Terminal creates a bridge between the Beckhoff controller, the EtherCAT network and DeviceNet field devices in customer facilities. Using auto configuration capabilities, Volovik explains, Agnitron engineers can easily connect new and legacy devices over EtherCAT without data loss: “I can now integrate a DeviceNet network in a few hours using EtherCAT industrial Ethernet and the TwinCAT development environment. With solutions from a previous vendor, this regularly took an entire week.”
MOCVDs maximize modularity with PC-based control
Agnitron continues to produce modular systems with competitive pricing and increased reliability through its strategic choice of automation and control technology. “The Agilis provides the highest MOCVD mobility and Aluminum incorporation, and its record-setting low background concentration is critical for low-doped drift layers for high-voltage power electronics,” Krishnamoorthy says. In addition, he believes the possibilities of the dual-use Agilis are game-changing for research organizations and the semiconductor industry: “No single platform available currently offers this. In fact, I have pending proposals to explore III-Nitride and Gallium Oxide integration for very high-voltage vertical device applications, and this platform will provide an affordable option my research and for projects at many other institutions.”
Beckhoff technologies help make this possible while cutting costs. By using one controller rather than a separate PC and PLC, the Agilis machine saves roughly $10,000 on control hardware, not including the substantial reduction in service contract fees that other vendors charge. In addition, TwinCAT 3 automation software can be freely downloaded from the Beckhoff website. “This competitive price point enables us to tap into other semiconductor markets where highly reliable controls are required,” Osinsky says.
Many refurbishment and retrofit projects also receive this benefit by incorporating the CX2040. However, when existing PLCs are in acceptable working condition, the company will simply replace the legacy PCs with a Beckhoff C5102 rack-mounted Industrial PC (IPC). In either case, the backward-compatibility of Beckhoff hardware and software ensures semiconductor growth recipes are reliably maintained. “In our experience, when we plugged a decades-old PCI card into other vendors’ new PCs, it resulted in a blue screen, but our legacy cards have plugged into Beckhoff IPCs without issue,” Volovik says.
The wide and growing range of open solutions from Beckhoff ensures that Agnitron possesses the ability to quickly adapt to customer specifications. Sowada says this benefit is standard for Beckhoff customers: “Agnitron and many other clients find the flexibility of the Beckhoff system architecture aligns well with their customers’ unique requirements.” Following 10 years of successful innovation, Agnitron plans to continue creating powerful, modular solutions that break new ground for semiconductor research and production, according to Osinsky. “We see Beckhoff as an outstanding partner for automation and control,” he says. “We look forward to new technologies from Beckhoff that can further customize and enhance our MOCVD systems.”
Are you interested in implementing ultra-compact I/O and controls solutions on your machines? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.
James Figy is the Senior Content Specialist at Beckhoff Automation LLC.
A version of this article previously appeared in Compound Semiconductor and Design World.