Industrial Gas Delivery Moves Into the IIoT Era

In the highly demanding space of ultra-high-purity gas delivery for semiconductor manufacturing, a switch to Beckhoff’s EtherCAT I/O and PC-based control technology enabled a system maker to save space and time while increasing functionality.

No manufacturer wants downtime in its operations. Lines not running is money lost—even worse if product already running has to be scrapped because of problems. But few industries face the kind of losses that can be sustained when there’s trouble on a semiconductor line.

“When semiconductor factories complete a run of wafers, they might be processing $1 million worth of product at any one time,” says David Stetz, chief engineer of R&D controls technology at Applied Energy Systems (AES). “If they have a downtime of just a few hours, it could severely damage the profitability of their production process.”

AES has been manufacturing high-purity gas delivery systems since the mid-1980s, a shift from its roots as a reseller of welding equipment since it opened for business in 1968. With that shift came a move to systems that were much more complex—and particularly critical. Ultra-high-purity industrial gases are not only essential for electronics manufacturing and research projects, the highly combustible or poisonous materials can also be fatal if mishandled. And any slip in quality could adversely affect the precision of the submicron-sized circuitry being printed on semiconductor wafers.

The high-purity gas systems go to general manufacturing industries, research labs, solar, pharmaceuticals and biotech products. Customers for the ultra-high-purity gas systems include manufacturers of aerospace components, semiconductors and other electronics.

With such a high-tech clientele, AES must continue to improve its offerings to remain competitive. In 2012, the company built a new facility next to its headquarters, just west of Philadelphia. The new building offers space to test and implement cutting-edge technologies to launch new products and update existing equipment.

“We are intently focused on research and development and expanding our manufacturing operations to support the Industry 4.0 solutions and the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that our customers require right now,” says Jim Murphy, general manager of AES.

Since this expansion, one of the key innovations for AES’s Semi-Gas division has been the GigaGuard GSM-V Controller, which monitors and regulates delivery of ultra-high-purity gases. It was designed specifically to replace the company’s GSM-5 controller, a legacy system that had become outmoded in a more connected age.

In designing the new GSM-V, Stetz knew it needed to be able support AES’s move toward IoT functionality in manufacturing. It would also need to be a plug-and-play system for end users. To meet the latest requirements, the GSM-V had to have faster processing speeds, a more intuitive human-machine interface (HMI) and improved networking capabilities.

The GSM-V would also need to monitor gas conditions effectively to maintain ultra-high purity levels and ensure safe working conditions. The delivery system needed to send out gases with at least the same purity level they had upon entry—or a higher purity level after passing through additional filters and purifiers.

Not only could a lapse in purity levels ruin an entire run of high-value products, but abnormal gas conditions could be a sign of larger—potentially fatal—problems. The delivery system needed to display real-time monitoring results on both the unit’s control panel and other network-connected devices to ensure safe operation. “The main factor in every piece of equipment we build—both the gas delivery systems and the controls for them—is safety,” Stetz says. “We primarily provide a safety system to dispense and distribute gases and chemicals for end-user facilities, so safety is always our No. 1 concern.”

 

Finding the right control

With the new automation and controls technology available today, providing all of these features should have been an easy task. Keeping the price point competitive was a concern in the GSM-V project, but the largest issue was that the controller needed to remain the same size while delivering higher performance. All of the components required to enhance the controller’s functionality needed to fit in an enclosure, measuring just 8 x 10 x 12 inches, that sits on the top edge of a cabinet that supplies ultra-high-purity gas to production equipment.

“Many of these systems are hardwired in place with additional equipment built around them, such as sprinkler systems or bus docks,” Stetz says. “We could not change the form factor of the equipment if we were to maintain the drop-in replacement capability. That form factor determined the maximum size of the GSM-V equipment because the easier we make replacements and retrofits, the more likely we are to increase sales and market share.”

Stetz ultimately discovered a number of hardware and software products from Beckhoff Automation that would benefit the GSM-V, but what originally captured his attention was the Beckhoff CP6606 Panel PC. The size of this cabinet-mounted economy controller perfectly fit the gas delivery system’s space requirements. The unit features a 7-inch touchscreen for HMI. It also minimizes cabinet space by eliminating the need for an additional hardware programmable logic controller (PLC) and maintains a log of active alarms that users can access via the HMI software. It features a 3.5-inch motherboard built by Beckhoff and a fanless ARM Cortex-A8 processor with an integrated graphic adapter. It includes a standard 512 MB MicroSD card, with the option to upgrade to a 2, 4 or 8 GB card.

TwinCAT 3 automation software runs on the CP6606 to support all control and display functions, which is something Stetz previously had to use multiple programs to accomplish. “TwinCAT 3 integrates both the PLC and HMI in one platform,” he says. “All of the HMI features that I would normally have to program in a separate software package and run on a separate PC are now combined into one package.”

Open-platform, PC-based systems ensure that the GSM-V can communicate with any end user’s supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system and send data to the cloud using the OPC UA command protocol, which is available on all Beckhoff PC-based control hardware. In addition, the scalable HMI software functions as intuitively on a PC, tablet or smartphone as it does on the built-in HMI display—a capability that AES was able to showcase at the SEMICON West 2018 trade show in San Francisco last summer. This makes it easier for the system to alert operators of unusual conditions. On top of a standard emergency off (EMO) button, the GSM-V can be shut down by a network PC, remote device or the system’s automated safety functions in the event of abnormal gas conditions.

 

Increased functionality in a small space

The networking and I/O capabilities of EtherCAT industrial Ethernet technology enable all control and safety functions to work in real time. The GSM-V standardized on Beckhoff’s EJ Series EtherCAT I/O system, including a bus coupler, 16-channel digital input, eight-channel analog input, four-channel analog output and two 16-channel digital output terminals. The EJ Series I/O terminals can attach directly to circuit boards, eliminating point-to-point wiring. The terminals also preserve space.

“With other vendors, I would need to have a box two or three times this size to incorporate so many I/O channels with off-the-shelf equipment,” Stetz says. “The fact that these terminals are so compact and easy to install on circuit boards gives AES greater flexibility in series production, and greatly minimizes the amount of wiring and potential for error.”

The 16-gauge steel welded enclosure also houses several components specific to ultra-high-purity gas delivery systems, including Form C relay outputs and solenoid valves, as well as an optional strain gauge conditioner and Type Z purge system. But even operating within the dictated space constraints, AES was still able to retain a small section of unused space in the ergonomically designed delivery system. “There is actually a void on one side of the enclosure, so if I need to add another piece of hardware, I have the ability to do so,” Stetz says.

 

Moving forward

AES initially released its GSM-V at SEMICON West 2017, and has since been replacing obsolete GSM-5 units across the country. The system meets all required safety standards, including SEMI S2, SEMI S8 and Uniform Fire Codes, and boasts greater functionality than its predecessor. But it it also offers a competitive price point and increased system flexibility.

AES prides itself on being able to adapt standard product lines to specific customer needs. Because the GSM-V is based on TwinCAT 3, the company can easily add any software that runs on a PC. “The Beckhoff solutions allowed AES to show our versatility, creativity and ingenuity with new products and legacy support, as well as the R&D for other new developments,” Stetz says. “This has only improved our standing with our customers.”

With its plug-and-play functionality, the GSM-V cuts installation times by 50 percent. “Until we finalized the GSM-V, we were replacing GSM-5 controllers with a different solution, and installation took at least a day due to the number of required modifications. We had to do a new panel cutout, drill holes and rewire many components with the older replacement method,” Stetz says. “But with the new GSM-V, our field technicians can replace two in a day. And on occasion, we have completed three replacements in one day.”

As a result of this project, AES’s R&D team has been identifying other new and legacy systems that could benefit from Beckhoff automation and control products. “This was one of the products that helped define a clear vision for us to support our customers’ Industry 4.0 projects,” Murphy says. “Many of our upcoming control solutions or upgrades to legacy systems take into account the importance of cloud connectivity, data accessibility and compatibility with customers’ SCADA. The GSM-V provided an important step in this direction.”

 

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