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Soaring tool costs to delay 450mm fabs

Posted: 19 Aug 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ic equipment? wafer fab? vlsi research? 450mm?

Soaring IC-equipment development costs could push out the appearance of next-generation 450mm wafer fabs to between 2020 and 2025!a delay of more than a decade from its current schedule, warned an analyst at VLSI Research Inc.

Risto Puhakka, president of VLSI Research, also said that the chip-equipment industry will not be able to afford to develop the required fab tools for 450mm fabs!if system development costs follow the same and costly exponential path as in the 300-mm era. In that frightening scenario, it could cost the overall IC-equipment industry a staggering $102 billion to develop 450mm tools, Puhakka warned.

And it also remains unclear just who will pay for the development costs for 450mm equipment, leaving some to believe that 450mm fabs will never find the light of day and 300mm will emerge as the last wafer size for the IC industry.

According to the current International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), 450-mm wafer fabs are expected to move into production in the 2012-to-2014 time frame. Megafabs based on 450-mm substrates will produce 150,000-to-200,000 8-inch equivalent wafers a month and a plant will run from $4-to-$5 billion each, according to the main proponent of the technology, Intel Corp.

Intel argues that 450mm fabs will keep the industry on track with Moore's Law. The chip-equipment giant also assumes the industry can make the transition to a new wafer size in roughly a 15-year cycle. The industry started the 200mm transition back in 1986 and is currently in the sixth-to-seventh year of the 300mm cycle.

But if, and only if, the semiconductor industry moves to the 450mm wafer size, the 2012-to-2014 time table outlined by the ITRS is far too aggressive, Puhakka said. "The likely scenario is that 450-mm will get postponed," he declared. "Right now, we don't think that will happen in 2012. Maybe it will happen between 2020-to-2025."

The problem is IC-equipment development costs, which are soaring out of control even in the 300-mm era. "We don't think equipment vendors can afford the next 450mm phase [by the 2012-to-2014 time frame]. It's going to take much longer," he said.

Tool development costs for 450mm fabs are expected to be astronomical, that is, based on the past history of the previous!and painful!wafer-size transition. In fact, there was a ninefold jump in terms of overall R&D costs to develop 300mm fab equipment, as compared to 200mm tools, he said.

If there is another ninefold jump in terms of R&D costs from 300mm to 450mm, the overall development costs for 450mm tools could run as high as $102 billion, according to VLSI Research. "If it is a ninefold increase, the industry can't afford it," he said.

Later than sooner

The only way the fab-tool industry can afford to develop 450-mm equipment is if the total R&D costs are around $20 billion!or roughly double to that of the 300-mm era, he added.

But even if the industry can bring down developments costs to the $20 billion level, equipment makers face another problem. "The equipment industry will pick up most of the tab" in terms of R&D costs for 450mm gear, the analyst said.

What's more, the industry must avoid the past mistakes made in the early stages of the 300mm era, where chip makers and fab-tool vendors experienced a number of false starts in the arena, thereby pushing out 300-mm fabs in mass production, he added.

Return-on-investment also remains a huge issue. It could take a total of 30 years before the semiconductor industry recoups its massive investments in 300mm technology, leaving some to wonder if fab-tool and IC vendors should move to the next-generation 450mm wafer size.

Indeed, it's unclear if many vendors can even afford to develop 450mm tools in the first place; most chip-equipment vendors are small- to mid-size companies with limited R&D budgets.

Many suppliers are even unable to afford to develop products for the current 300mm era. "When you look at the industry, it really hasn't recovered from the downturn," said Sergio Perez, VP of business development for Advantest Corp's U.S. unit, Advantest American Inc. Advantest (Tokyo) makes automatic test equipment (ATE) and electronic-beam tools.

"It's sad," Perez said. "There are very few companies that have the money [to fund next-generation products for the 300mm fabs]."

This is especially true for ATE, where the industry has lost millions of dollars amid a downturn in the sector. So going forward, the IC-equipment industry will require more collaboration between vendors and their customers in an effort to spread the R&D risks, he said.

Japan's Advantest has already moved in that direction. Three years ago, Intel, Advantest and others co-founded the Semiconductor Test Consortium Inc. (STC). STC's aim is to join forces and devise an "open architecture" for ATE, which would enable the development of "plug-and-play" modules, thereby addressing the soaring costs of IC test.

Even with collaboration to reduce R&D risks, many chip-equipment and materials vendors would rather see 450mm fabs later!rather than sooner. It will take a longer-than-expected time before the industry moves to 450mm fabs, said Andre-Jacques Auberton-Herve, chief executive of Soitec SA, a supplier of silicon-on-insulator (SOI) wafers.

"We are still in the early stages of 300mm," he said at a press event at the recent Semicon West trade show in San Francisco.

The industry is only six-to-seven years in the 300mm cycle, added Stephen Newberry, chief executive of Lam Research Corp. "I hope we are not going to talk about [450mm fabs] for a least another three or four years," he said at Semicon West.

- Mark LaPedus

EE Times

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