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Applied exits e-beam, laser tool markets

Posted: 18 Oct 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:applied? e-beam? laser tool? applied materials? electron-beam?

Applied Materials Inc. is quietly exiting the electron-beam and laser pattern-generation equipment markets, ending a painful and loss-ridden period in the competitive sectors, according to industry sources.

The chip-equipment giant is also reportedly shutting down its Etec Systems unit, the Hayward, Calif.-based operation that was in charge of developing its e-beam and pattern-generation tools for advanced photomask-making applications.

"We are ceasing development of new e-beam and laser-generation tools," confirmed a spokesman for Applied (Santa Clara, Calif.). "We will continue to service those products in the field."

Reports surfaced that most of the employees have or will be laid off in the Etec unit, but the spokesman denied those rumors. "We are not announcing layoffs," the spokesman said.

Employees impacted by the moves will enter Applied's "talent mobility program," which places workers in other divisions within the company, he said.

Still, the move surprised some observers despite mounting losses at troubled Etec. Applied had been inactive in the e-beam market for some time, but the chip-equipment giant had been a viable player in the laser-based pattern generation tool arena.

Applied's decision leaves the United States without a viable vendor in the laser tool market. That market is now dominated by Sweden's Micronic Laser Systems AB. Last week, the Swedish company introduced the latest version of the company's Sigma laser photomask pattern generation tool, the Sigma7500.

In 2000, Applied originally entered the e-beam business by acquiring Etec Systems in a stock-swap deal reportedly worth $1 billion. At the time, Etec was the world's largest e-beam vendor in terms of installed base.

Following the expensive acquisition, Applied lost market share in the business. The company was more than a year late in delivering its next-generation, e-beam system back in 2001a move that opened the door for its rivals, such as JEOL, Hitachi, Leica, and Toshiba.

In 2003, Applied dropped the e-beam due to technical problems. At the time, the company received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for use in developing next-generation, e-beam machines, but the chip-equipment giant apparently failed to launch the products.

And until recently, the company appeared to be competitive in the pattern-generation laser equipment market. Last year, Applied tipped the 4700 laser machine and a new lens for the 257-nm deep-UV tool. With an NA of 0.9, the new lens provided a 15 percent reduction in spot size, as compared to the previous subsystem. And it was supposed to enable the 4700 tool to write the critical layers for 90nm photomasks "and most 60nm layers," according to Applied.

- Mark LaPedus

EE Times

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