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Used semiconductor equipment becomes hot property

Internet of things creating booming secondhand market, engineers in short supply

TOKYO -- The spread of the internet of things has led to an unexpected secondhand market in the semiconductor industry. A shortage of equipment used in their manufacture has led many companies to purchase used equipment from leasing companies and manufacturers.

Kenji Takada, general manager of the electronics equipment department at Sumitomo Mitsui Finance and Leasing, said many companies are vying for used semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Prices of the company's equipment now stand at about 20-30% higher than the lows seen after the 2008 global financial crisis.

According to data from the Semiconductor Equipment Association of Japan, the book-to-bill ratio for Japan-based semiconductor equipment manufacturers -- the ratio of three-month moving averages of worldwide bookings and billings -- was 1.31 in December 2016. A reading of over 1 means higher demand than supply. There has been more demand than supply since December 2015.

Electronic components makers are more likely to lease expensive equipment to hold down initial costs. Once a machine's lease expires and it is put on the secondhand market, it immediately gets snapped up by domestic and foreign manufacturers.

Mitsubishi UFJ Lease & Finance's five-year-old wafer cutting equipment goes for about 11 million yen ($97,933).

For the manufacture of internet-of-things technology, cheaper previous-generation equipment is often chosen. Increasingly, equipment for 200mm wafers is finding its way on to the secondhand market.

Mayuki Hashimoto, chairman and CEO of wafer manufacturer Sumco, said 200mm wafers are widely used in internet-of-things technology and automobiles.

Many Asian countries are actively investing in semiconductors. Demand in China, where the central government plays a leading role in investment, is increasing, Takada said.

Disco -- a producer of wafer-cutting and other chip-making equipment -- saw sales of used equipment increased fivefold to 600 million yen in 2016, buoyed by rising demand from Southeast Asian foundries.

Manufacturers of electronic components and manufacturing equipment are stepping up recruitment of engineers to cope with output increase. According to a survey by Recruit Works Institute, 16.7% of companies involved in the semiconductor and electronic component sectors said they will hire more mid-career workers in fiscal 2017, up 6.5 percentage points from the previous fiscal year -- the highest in the manufacturing sector.

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