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Is The Intel-Backed ATE Group Losing Steam?Is The Intel-Backed ATE Group Losing Steam?

With a high-level resignation, questions are being raised about the future of the Intel-backed Automatic Test Equipment consortium.

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Sergio Perez, vice president of business development at Advantest Corp.'s U.S. subsidiary, has quietly resigned — a move that raises more questions about the future of an Intel-backed automatic test equipment (ATE) consortium.

Perez has resigned from Advantest (Tokyo) to join FormFactor Inc. (Livermore, Calif.), a supplier of probe cards for ATE, according to sources. In addition to his duties at Japanese ATE giant Advantest, Perez was also in charge of the marketing working group for the Semiconductor Test Consortium (STC), the Intel-backed group that is driving an "open standard" for ATE. Perez' departure was seen by analysts as a major blow for the STC, which itself has fallen short of its original charter to bring an "open standard" for the ATE industry as a whole. The ATE executive was one of the champions for the STC and a driving force behind the "open ATE architecture" concept, according to analysts. In an interview, Bob Helsel, the new secretary for the STC (San Diego), insisted that the ATE consortium is growing and remains committed to its original charter despite the departure of Perez. At the STC, Perez' duties in the marketing working group have been assumed by Keith Imai, a marketing manager for Advantest's U.S. arm, Advantest America Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.). Still, it's been an uphill battle for the STC. For years, ATE companies have separately developed proprietary testers, but the problem with this model is that overall test costs have skyrocketed in recent times. In response, Advantest, Intel and others in 2002 raised eyebrows by forming the STC. The STC's aim is to devise an "open architecture" for ATE, which would enable the development of "plug-and-play" third-party modules for testers. In doing so, the STC hopes to drive down the soaring costs of IC test. The STC has also attempted to garner support for the technology from third-party module makers and rival ATE companies. Originally, it had hoped that rival ATE houses would "clone" and build compatible machines based on its technology. The concept, however, has fallen far short of its expectations. To date, only two ATE companies — Advantest and Roos Instruments — have announced testers based on the STC-backed technology, dubbed Open Semiconductor Test Architecture or Openstar. Rival ATE companies — Credence, LTX, Teradyne, Verigy and others — have refused to back the STC or build testers based on Openstar. What's more, Advantest's Openstar-based ATE machine, dubbed the T2000, has primarily only one customer: Intel. The industry as a whole has not accepted the T2000 and Freescale Semiconductor Inc. returned a system last year and bailed out of the group. There's more bad news: Intel has reportedly slowed its ATE purchases, including the procurement of Advantest's T2000. In its financial results this week, Advantest posted strong results, but the company acknowledged that it experienced a "pause" in T2000 system orders, reportedly from Intel. Intel itself has cut its capital spending twice in 2006 and is slowing down its overall equipment purchases. Despite signs that the STC is unraveling, the group insists that it is still alive and well. "We still believe the interest level is high," Helsel said. "From my perspective, it's still going strong." The STC, he said, boasts some 85 members and 46 corporate members. Members include ADI, Fujitsu, Infineon, Intel, Matsushita, Philips, Renesas, TSMC, Toshiba and others. "Three years ago, the STC was a concept of an open architecture for semiconductor test driven by a small core group of forward-thinking companies who envisioned a different, open view of the semiconductor test world," said Fred Bode, the outgoing secretary of the STC, in a statement at the recent Semicon West trade show. "As we celebrate our third anniversary, Openstar has become a significant ATE architecture because the end users have realized its technical and business benefits are crucial to solving their dynamic test requirements," Bode said. Bode is in the process of retiring from the STC and his consulting firm, Bode Enterprises, it was noted. The ATE industry is still in dire need of an open architecture, but the question is whether or not the industry will accept the STC or Openstar. "It's a long process to achieve adoption in the industry," Hesel said. Going forward, though, the STC is looking for "less contentious" areas of collaboration for the ATE industry, including the standardization of interfaces, probers and handles, he said. The STC has been toying with this idea for a long time. In 2004 the STC was thinking about expanding its charter, by pushing for new test-interface and probe-card standards. For years, probe cards have been a nagging issue in the overall cost of test. ATE buyers must procure a tester, along with a separate and proprietary probe-card and test-interface product. The problem is that there are some 200-to-300 proprietary, expensive probe-card configurations in the market. Each configuration requires a separate test-interface product or socket, which fits between the test head and probe card in an ATE machine. Suppliers of proprietary probe cards and ATE interface sockets may resist the move to standardize these technologies, according to analysts.

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