We were approached by a start-up company who had a great idea to help the Silicon mask industry. These masks are used in the manufacture or Silicon wafers - large pieces of Silicon that have many identical copies of the same electronic circuit on them. They are hugely expensive to produce, and almost impossible to make 100% defect free. Using a mask with faults results in Silicon wafers that will all have errors - so the yield of good chips from each wafer is already impacted before you start. Making a new mask will mean paying again and it will be unlikely to have less errors.
To realise their machine, they needed some electronics that would control and take data from an Electron microscope, and to provide processing power to compare that image with the same area of a correct mask pattern.
When a difference is detected, it must be determined if the mask has too much material or some material missing. The Electronics could then control an electron beam erosion or an electron beam deposition system to repair the fault.
We already had a board design that combined an FPGA with some Analogue to Digital converters (ADC) and Digital to Analog Converters (DAC), but their voltage ranges did not match the needs. We developed a special version of this board, offering the correct inputs and outputs for this system. The processing required some memory to store the known good and incoming images for processing. So we combined the special modules with some other modules that had further FPGAs and some DDR memory.
During the development of the system, our customer was programming the system, but had some problems that they could not resolve. We provided programming consultancy to help them to identify and fix the problems.
We added to this assembly a special cable loom and shielding board, to provide a single plug-in electronics sub-system for them to use when building their machines.
Eventually this machine achieved so much success that the company was acquired by a large industry leader who continued to purchase the sub-systems from us.
Amazingly, the machine was updated to use a new type of Scanning Probe Electron Microscope that we had also been involved in developing.