Clock is Ticking for Semiconductor Companies’ Legacy MES

When making the chips in our electronics, companies don’t use modern software to understand, guide, and improve the process. It’s a ticking time bomb.

The pioneers always get arrows in their backs. Semiconductor companies were the pioneers on which I built my early career as an industry analyst studying manufacturing execution systems (MES).  However, I don’t feel they’ve moved the same direction I have.

Galloping along at the speed of Moore’s Law, it’s somewhat surprising that the semiconductor companies have succeeded as well as they have for as long as they have.  While I think the technological pace will continue in their products, their internal technology use must catch up or create grave risks for anyone using electronics in their products. I’m not usually an alarmist, so what am I talking about? The many semiconductor companies that are  using plant floor MES software more than 10 years old. According to my recent research for MESA International, over 30% self-report software that old.  That is a ticking time bomb.

Lower prices, radically new product technologies, and demanding new applications mean that chip makers must once again innovate as they did when they were young.  Old MES simply can’t keep up with that.  While the price-sensitive nature of their industry discourages companies from investments they don’t need to make, increasingly these companies DO need to invest.

Why? Some of that old MES software is going into an unsupported state very soon.  Semiconductor companies can’t hire people to maintain the old COBOL and Fortran systems.  They buy spare parts for the hardware this ancient stuff resides in on eBay.  Is that risky enough for you?

What’s more amazing is that it does not have to be that way.  Quite a few semiconductor companies have made the switch to modern MES/MOM in the past few years – and not lost any production time.  I interviewed them.  This paper has insights from those discussions.  Yes, one reports it was like changing the tires on a car while you’re on the racetrack – but they did it.  The costs are a factor, but the payoffs are huge.  The companies that upgrade can actually see what’s going on, manage it, and provide customers the data they want about their products. All while allowing their system managers to sleep at night.

As the new generation of workers enters these fabs and front-end facilities, this WILL change.  Meanwhile, if you use electronics in your products, you might consider reviewing the systems of your chip suppliers.  Maybe you can teach them a thing or two…  Help them see that it’s time to make the change.


Graphic in the public domain, thanks to G.P. du Berger of HTML’s Magic on Creative Commons.

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