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U.S., tech industry mull creation of mask consortium

Posted: 24 Mar 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:photomask? deep-submicron mask design?

The U.S. government, photomask companies and several semiconductor makers are reportedly in the final stages of forming a research consortium to help overcome the technical and economic difficulties associated with deep-submicron mask design.

The discussions among the various companies and government agencies have been ongoing for more than six months, and have reached the point where a draft charter has been proposed and lawmakers are being asked for their support, according to the industry newsletter Manufacturing & Technology.

The newsletter cites several named and unnamed sources in the government and in the electronics industry expressing concern about the economic malaise that has weakened domestic mask-making companies, the skyrocketing cost of making masks and offshore competition. Chipmakers Intel Corp. and Micron Technology Inc. and mask makers Photronics Inc. and DuPont Photomask Inc. were named in the article as participants in the consortium.

Among those spearheading consortium's creation is Martin Peckerar, director of the electronic science and technology division at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. Peckerar made waves last June when he told an audience at the Advanced Reticle Symposium that he was concerned about the health of the U.S. mask industry. One reason, he said, was that chipmakers are putting too much pressure on mask shops to lower costs without regard to the high overhead the work entails.

"This puts survival at great risk during economic downturn. This is not an issue for the chip industry, as it perceives such collapses as part of the Darwinian struggle. From a government perspective, though, this issue is serious," Peckerar said, according to a copy of his speech. He then proposed a new R&D model for domestic mask-making.

The issue came up again at last October's Bacus (Bay Area Chrome User's Group) meeting when mask makers and mask-making equipment suppliers gathered to discuss the idea of cooperative research and development.

Officially, however, little has changed. A spokesman for Photronics, one of the companies named as a consortium member, confirmed that there has been talk of pooling R&D dollars but said no formal organization has been created. "To call it a consortium at this point would be premature," he said.

Still, he acknowledged that the Photronics has been working with government agencies on next-generation lithography (NGL) initiative and that there is widespread concern about impediments to mask production. Chipmakers are worried too as some have projected that the cost of masks will exceed $1 million for the 90nm generation.

"With the R&D required to do 90-, 65-, and 45nm today, it's a real stretch for the mask companies to keep pace with that," the spokesman said.

Ken Rygler, a consultant and former business development manager at DuPont Photomasks, said he's familiar with the discussions to create a government-backed mask consortium but was not aware of any formal proposal to create a consortium.

"The intent is good, but the question is whether it can be executed in a timely manner. It would require each company to allocate a portion of their own R&D budget to a cooperative effort. But after all, that is the idea, to leverage each company's dollars with a cooperative effort."

Rygler said the two U.S.-based mask-makers, Photronics and DuPont Photomask, are not generating enough revenues now to support the level of R&D needed to expedite improvements in mask technologies.

"Something needs to be done, but for the politicians I suspect that the photomask industry is not at the top of their priority list now when it comes to technology research. Nanotechnology is the hot topic now, even though we all know that semiconductors will continue to be the driver for many years to come," Rygler said.

Private consortiums are being formed, notably the mask development and manufacturing center set up in Dresden, Germany, by Advanced Micro Devices, DuPont Photomasks and Infineon Technologies. Infineon is closing down its internal mask operations and transferring that function to the Dresden mask operation managed by DuPont.

"Companies are cooperating with their customers, their suppliers, and in some cases their competitors, because advanced mask-making technology is just too costly to do [on] one's own," he said.

- Anthony Cataldo and David Lammers

EE Times

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