Big Player in a Small World
Zyvex focuses on the semiconductor industry in its quest to revolutionize manufacturing through nanotechnology
By James Gaskin
Big money lurks in small measurements and big opportunity in small companies. That’s the lesson I received when visiting Zyvex, Inc., makers of NanoWorks, a line of tools for the semiconductor failure analysis industry.
How do you see problems in electrical circuits now measured in nanometers? By using special probes on an SEM (scanning electron microscope). These specialty probes fill the computer screen with connections invisible to the naked eye, even with Sherlock Holmes’ largest magnifying glass.
Zyvex employs about 60 people scattered through four companies: Zyvex Instruments and Zyvex Labs, sharing a building in the Dallas, Texas area; Zyvex Performance in Columbus, Ohio; and Zyvex Asia in Singapore. The two engineers that showed me around, Taylor Cavanah and Mike Berkmyre, work officially for Zyvex Instruments, which has the majority of employees. But their business cards just say “Zyvex.” In small companies, rigid hierarchies give way to getting the job done, no matter what label is on the door or business card.
A look at Zyvex gives a glimpse into the world of nanotechnology, which basically involves manipulating matter at an atomic level – a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. This allows vastly improved manufacturing processes that can be scaled up. James Von Ehr founded Zyvex in 1997 to develop practical uses for molecular nanotechnology to transform manufacturing. Zyvex develops products in nanomanipulation, nanomaterials, and micro-assembly while pursuing its ultimate goal of developing atomically precise manufacturing across all size scales.
While nanotechnology has been around for decades, the first practical applications of it are just now coming to fruition. In 2007, Zyvex Instruments spun out of Zyvex to focus on instrumentation for semiconductor production. Nanotechnology applies particularly well to this industry because it’s so expansive with the proliferation of electronic devices in our society – cell phones, laptops, GPS receivers, etc. – and with the constant pursuit of smaller electronic devices (think Moore’s Law).
To show how the company operates, Zyvex Instruments’ most popular product line, dProber, adds to existing scanning electron microscopes. The highest end Zyvex system provides resolution down to 5 nanometers of movement and 50 nanometers of viewing. Since Zyvex probes and microgrippers are aftermarket products bought by owners of scanning electron microscopes and FIB (focused ion beam) systems, each installation is custom, meaning Zyvex employees must exactly match their additions to the customer’s equipment. Since Zyvex provides improvements for nearly 40 brands of microscopes, they can’t afford to have all the models in stock. Zyvex Engineers must make each installation work despite the lack of an in-house testbed matching the intended system.
Big-Name Customers Worldwide
Customers for Zyvex span the big names in semiconductors, though Zyvex prefers not to name names. They sell about 35 of their dProber kits each year for an average price of $500,000. Customers range all over the world, with more activity in Asia today then ever before.
The highest-end product, a complete scanning electronic microscope system developed in partnership with FEI Company, sells for around $1.65 million. Zyvex adds their hardware and software to the FEI equipment and delivers the tool as one assembly. Their brochure calls this, “An eight-positioner nanomanipulator system designed and optimized to electrically probe sub-100nm features on semiconductor devices. The system consists of a state-of-the-art Zyvex Nanomanipulator, an FEI Quanta 200 FEG SEM, a parametric analyzer, an advanced anti-contamination system, and custom software to control and integrate each component.”
Semiconductors are tiny, but they loom as expansive as Kansas when you crawl manually over their surface looking for problems. The Zyvex nProber system works with the CAD (computer-aided design) software files used by the semiconductor manufacturer. This allows the probes to automatically reference and move to points on the chip when given the proper coordinates.
“With our system, a technician can do the failure analysis,” says Taylor Cavanah. “Most systems require an engineer to run them and perform the failure analysis, but our software makes it possible for techs to handle this rather than take an engineer’s time for analysis. The engineer can then spend more time fixing the problems.”
Cavanah, business manager, came to engineering via a love of physics, sparked by Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. He stuck at Zyvex after being rejected during his first attempt for lack of education beyond his physics degree from Rice. Told to get a Ph.D. by Von Ehr, Cavanah connected with Zyvex again after getting his Master’s at the University of Surrey on a grant from the UK government. By then, Zyvex was looking for “doers, not researchers” so Cavanah joined rather than continuing on to get his Ph.D. Although under 30, Cavanah has more seniority than almost anyone else in the company today.
“Engineering’s been a great way to see the world,” Cavanah remarks. “I’ve been all over Asia, including Singapore, doing installations.” Projects such as the FEI integration also help you see dawn from the wrong side. “We stayed at work past 2:00 a.m. lots of nights working with FEI to put our probes in their machines, then write the software to send the probes directly to coordinates from the CAD software.”
Mike Berkmyre, product development manager, came to an engineering job via an undergraduate degree in business and an MBA in management and technology. “I started out as an engineering student,” he recalls, “then switched over to business.” A college advisor suggested he take an internship at Zyvex, tagged as one of the exciting places in nanotechnology. “I started out doing marketing studies and found some potential customers. After being a product manger, I moved up and am now in charge of all product development.” Cavanah adds, “Don’t let him fool you. He does real engineering every day.”
“Let’s say my group does hands-on engineering every day,” Berkmyre elaborates. “My work starts when we get a purchase order from a customer. That starts new product development, we figure out what we have to do, and we do it.” The two act as checks and balances for the company; Cavanah asks for everything, Berkmyre says it can’t be done that way, and they start negotiating.
The Same But Different
Walking around a nanotech company, it looks surprisingly normal but with surprises here and there. As I followed Cavanah through the winding halls, beige paint, whiteboards, and cubicles lulled me into thinking this could be any small business. Then we rounded a corner, and I saw a cow-sized piece of equipment wrapped in tin foil surrounded by engineers and Von Ehr, chairman of the company. “That’s Von Ehr’s project,” states Cavanah. “Atomically precise manufacturing.”
Often called APM, manufacturing at the atomic level is exactly what it sounds like: putting materials together by moving and binding atoms to each other. A few years ago, IBM managed to write the letters I B M on a substrate by dropping individual atoms in place. The photo made the news, but the manufacturing tools aren’t yet ready for prime time.
Even more fun are the gears, levers, and motors of MEMS (micro electromechanical systems) that work on a nano scale. Of course, the only way to see the teeth on a MEMS gear wheel is with a scanning electron microscope, probably outfitted with a Zyvex Instruments probe.
A few doors down, we visited the small, dark lab where a tech was testing a new probe assembly on the company’s scanning electron microscope. Cavanah pulled a probe assembly out of a locked cabinet and handed it to me. A square piece of machined aluminum about eight inches to a side held four probe arms that hovered over a mounted semiconductor. The probe ends dwindled to nothing, and trying to follow the traces on the chip with a naked eyeball proved futile and headache inducing.
Both Cavanah and Berkmyre deal with customers regularly. As engineers, dealing with people was something they both had to learn to appreciate. Cavanah summed up his experience: “Metal doesn’t gripe at you.” On the other hand, collaborating with coworkers, customers, and suppliers has proven the most creative area of his job. “There are lots of problems to solve,” as he puts it.
Overall, working in a small high-tech company has given Cavanah a unique perspective. “Smaller companies allow more flexibility and fun in a shorter time. If I’d gone to some huge company, I might be doing more hands-on research and engineering, but I wouldn’t have gotten to travel or gotten promoted nearly this quickly.”
Semiconductor Production Moving to Asia
Half of Zyvex’s sales come from Asia because production is so much less expensive there that domestic companies can’t compete. Cavanah says Texas Instruments, developer of the original transistor and builder of a mammoth headquarters and production facilities in Dallas, has started outsourcing production of its products. Intel remains the only U.S. company that designs and fabricates its chips in its own factories.
Luckily for Cavanah, his overseas sales and support meetings in Asia are with engineers who speak English. Often it’s British English, especially in Singapore. He has learned a few words in Mandarin and Malay as well. He sees firsthand that future engineers will always be in demand, but those with fluency in Asian languages will be prized recruits.
Zyvex Asia supports Asian sales, service, and research for Zyvex customers in the region. Tellingly, that branch of the company is based in Singapore, the location of a booming semiconductor outsourcing market.
Just over a year ago, Zyvex split into four companies with Von Ehr remaining the founding partner and chairman of each. His goal for the spinoff was to reassure customers in different areas that a dedicated section of the overall company remained focused on their technical needs.
Among the four companies, Zyvex Instruments provides tools, instrumentation, and applications to the semiconductor and advanced research markets. Zyvex Labs focuses on research to develop next-generation tools to commercialize atomically precise manufacturing. Von Ehr spends most of his time working with this group. Zyvex Performance Materials sells NanoSolve products that deliver enhanced mechanical and electrical properties in polymers by leveraging carbon nanotubes into composite materials such as sports equipment. One result: “Eaton’s Stealth baseball bat was recognized as one of the top 50 products that will have a significant impact on the future of nanotechnology,” according to Sports Features Communications. Zyvex Asia helps commercialize nanotechnology in Asia.
Cavanah and Berkmyre love Zyvex, engineering, and the opportunities they’ve had in a small company. They’ve traveled extensively, been promoted quickly, and remain on the cutting edge of nanotechnology. Every day they have something interesting to do, even if on an extremely small scale.
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