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Opinion: Are ATE standards destined for failure?

Posted: 13 Nov 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IEEE? STC? ATE?

For years, chip makers have been screaming about the need for lower-cost IC test.

One of the by-products in low-cost IC test is standards. Suppliers of automatic test equipment (ATE) have made several strides to lower the cost of test by rolling out new testers, but they have fallen way short on the standardization front.

There are several important IEEE standards in ATE. But over the years, ATE vendors have agreed to disagree on many other standards, as they have refused to work with each other in the arena. Instead, over the decades, they have developed their own, proprietary ATE hardware and software, each claiming that their technologies are better than competitive offerings.

There have been several attempts to develop "standards" on several fronts, such as a common ATE platform, probe card interfaces and others. But most of those efforts, namely from the Semiconductor Test Consortium (STC) have flopped.

Now, there is a new effort to drive ATE standards. Late last month, Advantest, Amkor, Infineon, Intel, LTX-Credence, Qualcomm, Roos Instruments, Teradyne and Verigy formed a new organization.

The group, dubbed the Collaborative Alliance for Semiconductor Test (CAST), intends to foster pre-competitive collaboration, devise ATE standards, define and measure benchmark criteria, and act as a representative and an advocate for the members.

The announcement prompted several questions: Why the sudden interest in ATE standards after years' of futility in the arena? Will ATE makers finally get down to business and drive standards? If so, what kind of standards will CAST deliver? And who will benefit?

Members from CAST did not outline or specify their exact goals at a recent event. They are supposed to outline their plans over time.

Many doubt if the new CAST organization and its efforts to drive standards will work at all. Chip makers and ATE vendors are still oceans apart when it comes to their own interests. "The chip makers want standards, while the ATE vendors want differentiation," said Jim Mulady, editor of the Final Test Report. "That's a pretty big wall."

Others believe the timing of the CAST announcement was suspicious. It was uplifting to see competitive ATE makers on the same stage, but some wonder if the event was a mere photo opportunity or PR event. After all, the often-forgotten ATE industry needs a little attention now and then. Perhaps a little love.

Or, perhaps there was another motive: ATE vendors are crying for help amid the IC downturn and economic crisis. In its most recent forecast, Gartner Inc., projects that the ATE market will fall by 26.7 percent in 2008, but it could rebound by 5 percent in 2009.

But stay tuned. That forecast could change for the worse, leaving some to wonder if the industry will fall to the depths of the horrific 2001 downturn.

In fact, the ATE industry is in awful shape right now and vendors are looking down the abyss again. Now, perhaps this time around, ATE vendors will finally cooperate and drive standards with customers.

ATE vendors may be forced to shed their arrogance and cooperate and for good reason. "Our view is that R&D dollars (in ATE) are declining," said Don Edenfeld of Intel and CAST planning group co-chair, in a recent interview. "The only way to eliminate waste" is to cooperate and form standards.

Debbora Ahlgren, VP and chief marketing officer of Verigy Inc. and co-chair of the CAST planning group, said the organization would avoid past mistakes and will not develop a new ATE platform.

The bottom line
Ahlgren was taking an apparent shot at the STC. Several years ago, Intel, Advantest and others formed the STC. The STC's goal was to develop a common and standard ATE platform. In effect, ATE vendors were supposed to develop "ATE clones." In other words, ATE vendors built a common platform. Each platform was supposed to support interchangeable ATE modules.

The STC fell short of those goals. Only one vendor built a tester based on the group's specifications: Advantest Corp. Other ATE vendors refused to follow suit.

On the other hand, Intel benefited from the program. Advantest rolled out a new tester, dubbed the T2000. Intel procured a slew of those systems, which, in turn, are said to have lowered its overall test costs.

Intel was the only beneficiary in the STC, many argue. Keith Lee, president and chief executive of Advantest's U.S. arm, dismissed those claims, saying that the Japanese ATE giant has sold the T2000 in accounts besides Intel. The T2000 "is not a one-hit wonder," Lee told EE Times.

Some wonder who will benefit from CAST, especially from a customer point of view. ATE end-users Amkor, Infineon, Intel and Qualcomm are in the group. Others are not, including ASE, Samsung, Toshiba, TI and a slew of others.

So, the big question remains: Will Intel become the sole beneficiary of the new ATE organization? It's unclear, but clearly, everyone is scrambling for Intel's ATE business.

Since 2001 or so, Intel, one of the world's largest ATE buyers has made the T2000 as its ATE "platform of choice" in the logic world. The T2000 is testing the company's microprocessors.

Intel will reportedly procure T2000 systems and upgrades for the next three years or so, sources speculate. Then, the chip giant is reportedly looking for a new ATE system.

The latest conspiracy theory? Because Verigy is leading the CAST effort, many see that Verigy is in line for Intel's ATE business in the future. Intel and Verigy declined to comment.

But what about the ATE standards front? Don't look for anything substantial for some time. In fact, like the STC, CAST may be doomed to fail. But who cares as long as you have Intel's ATE business.

-Mark LaPedus
EE Times





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