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E&E: Cleanrooms: The unsung heroes of the technology era

E&E: Cleanrooms: The unsung heroes of the technology era

04 Oct 2021

It was the early 1990s, and the electrical and electronics industry in Penang, the so-called Silicon Valley of the East, was booming. After completing his Form 6, Ng Yew Sum was doing a part-time work and study programme at the Federal Institute of Technology.

One day, a friend from his hometown of Kuala Pilah invited him to join Micron (M) Sdn Bhd, a company in Penang that designed, installed and traded in cleanroom equipment for semiconductor and micro-electronics manufacturing companies. This opportunity would earn him more money than getting a diploma, the friend said. Ng did not need much convincing and in 1992, left his programme to join the company.

It turned out to be a good decision. Micron has since expanded into manufacturing its own cleanroom equipment and Ng went on to set up Channel Micron Holdings Co Ltd (CMH), which entered into a joint venture with two US-based companies to form Channel Systems Asia Sdn Bhd in 1999. The company has offices in China, Malaysia and the Philippines. In 2020, CMH was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Ng is now the chairman of CMH. From his decades of experience in the industry, he has observed how the cleanroom industry — whose biggest clients are semiconductor manufacturing firms — has evolved alongside technological advancements. 

Cleanrooms are controlled environments where pollutants such as dust and microbes are filtered out. They are essential for the manufacturing of electronic products, semiconductors and pharmaceutical products. Pollutants, however small, will affect the functionality of these products.

“In those days, microchips were only used for computers and in the aerospace industry. Most factories were small compared to nowadays. Micron started by building cleanroom equipment like air showers and filtration systems for these factories,” says Ng.

“But the semiconductor and microchip demand has increased by over 100 times since then. Many new factories and wafer foundries are emerging, and building new facilities faster. The volume [of our orders] has gone up, as has the level of sophistication.”

Wafers, which are thin slices of semiconductor materials, are becoming bigger and manufactured with advanced technologies. All of this require better cleanrooms.

In a way, Ng’s company is in a very advantageous position. Demand for microchips is soaring amid a global chip shortage. Almost every product, be it cars or smartphones, requires microchips. Due to the US-China trade war, China has also been ramping up its capabilities in manufacturing high-end microchips.

“Today, the rise of the Internet of Things, 5G, data centres, solar panel manufacturing and the use of more microchips in automobiles have increased the demand for cleanrooms,” says Ng. He has also been receiving enquiries from manufacturers of batteries for electric vehicles from Europe.

To meet all this extra demand, Micron purchased a four-acre parcel of land in Klang in May to build a new factory. This factory will likely export products to China, the Philippines, India and Europe. 

How does a cleanroom work?

The concept of a cleanroom is simple. Advanced filters are put in place to remove pollutants and contaminants from outside air. HEPA filters, fan filters and special ceilings, walls and flooring are installed to minimise contamination.

“To maintain a cleanroom, you also need positive pressure so that dirty air won’t enter the room. You’ll need an air shower and pass box to transfer humans and products in and out of the environment. The room is interlocked [that is, no two doors can open at the same time] to prevent air leakage both ways. Humidity control is also very important, otherwise it might result in fungus or bacteria growth,” says Ng.

CMH chose to team up with the US-based companies because they have the ability to achieve near-zero outgassing through their special panel manufacturing process. Outgassing refers to the release of trapped gas or vapour from solid materials.

Every customer has different demands, so the company has to constantly innovate to meet these diverse needs. For instance, data centres like solutions that can manage the immense heat generated by their servers. Semiconductor manufacturers have to reduce static in the environment, which could destroy electronic circuits.

Most high-end wafer fabrication plants, Ng adds, are concerned about air molecular contamination. “Therefore, panels used in these cleanrooms must be made of extremely low outgassing materials to ensure very minimal contamination in the microchip production process.”

Channel Systems Asia currently has several patents for the design of its cleanroom systems. It has a group of engineers in Malaysia and China, who generate designs based on client demands.

“A few years ago, we had enquiries from an LED manufacturing plant. It needed massive cleanrooms the size of 10 football fields. To do that, we had to reinforce the design of our panels,” says Ng. 

Poised for growth

Ng believes that Channel Systems Asia is one of the few companies in the industry that has successfully ventured into China. The challenge is that it will have to compete with domestic cleanroom providers there.

But Ng is confident of the company’s good reputation. It is crucial that it delivers its best for every project since the industry is small.

“For instance, if you fail to deliver a project to Intel, it will blacklist you and you would not be able to win its projects from other countries. A proven track record is very important. I believe that’s why we have been able to ask for better prices compared to our competitors,” he says.

The pandemic, however, has been a setback for the company. According to CMH’s annual report last year, its net profit for the financial year declined due to project delays and stop-work orders in China, Malaysia, Singapore and other markets.

“But we’re grateful for China, which contributed to 50% of our business revenues, because its lockdowns didn’t result in as significant an impact,” says Ng.

In the long term, he hopes to explore more solutions that can prevent airborne molecular contamination, which is essential for the manufacture of high-end microchips. Chemical filters are an option. However, developing this product requires a lot of research and development, he says.

“I had this on my mind 15 years ago but I haven’t had the chance to go into it because it requires big capital investments. We need the know-how and money. The normal carbon filters we use today can capture pollutants in parts per million, but high-end semiconductor manufacturers might be looking at parts per billion level of pollutants in the air. Chemical filters can address this and increase the production yield of such microchips.”

Some components of cleanrooms

Pass box: Facilitates the transfer of items in and out of cleanrooms while minimising human traffic. Equipped with interlocking systems to prevent contamination.

Air showers: Prevents contamination by using an air jet nozzle to blow fine particles attached to workers’ garments and footwear before they enter cleanrooms.

Cleanroom walls: Manufactured as a system, including an aluminium or metal support system and wall panels made of aluminium, honeycomb, polyurethane and other materials. Coated with paint materials to meet the requirements of various industries. Capable of achieving zero outgassing, which refers to the release of gas trapped in materials.

Source: The Edge Markets

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