Ultratech's current business focuses primarily on a big piece of equipment called a "stepper." Steppers are aimed at advanced packaging applications -- the process by which the delicate innards of a semiconductor are encapsulated in a protective case. But Ultratech is making a big effort to expand its business beyond steppers (and kick-start growth) with its Laser Spike Anneal (LSA) tool.
The LSA is designed to help chip manufacturers increase yields -- the fraction of functioning chips to total chips produced. As semiconductors get increasingly smaller, the manufacturing processes are becoming more and more complex, shrinking yields. Companies that can help chip makers raise yields stand to benefit greatly over the coming decade.
Ultratech recently took a step that strengthens its focus on yield improvement. In a curiously brief statement, management announced that it has agreed to purchase a privately held company called Oraxion. Absent from the announcement were "minor" details like purchase price and the date by which the transaction should close. Also, since Oraxion is not a public company, we know nothing about its profitability -- or even whether it has recorded any revenue. But we do know a few things; several members of its management team have worked at Applied Materials
More information can be gleaned from Oraxion's website. In a nutshell, the company makes a piece of equipment that measures deformations (or curvature) in semiconductor films using a technology called coherent gradient sensing (CGS). As a semiconductor chip is manufactured, a variety of different thin films are deposited on a silicon wafer; the rigors of manufacturing can cause a very small amount of curvature in the thin films, leading to defective chips. It's advantageous for a semiconductor maker to be able to monitor their wafers during manufacturing, in order to correct any undesirable variations.
CGS measures the topography of the semiconductor's surface much more quickly than alternative technologies. If you took calculus in college, you probably remember performing the mathematical operation called differentiation. (Perhaps you've been trying to forget.) As a reminder, doing one differentiation provides information about the slope of a line; performing a second differentiation provides curvature information. Since CGS measures curvature, you can see the relation, but instead of using pencil and paper, CGS performs the differentiation process using light.
The technology definitely looks interesting, but investors will have to wait to judge the soundness of this acquisition until management releases more details. Given its strong balance sheet, Ultratech can afford to spend a few dollars; for now, I'm encouraged by this development.
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Fool contributor Dan Bloom doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this column. He hasn't had reason to take a derivative in over a year, and he misses the process.