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Foundry tool makers cool to Sematech 450mm plan

Posted: 25 Jul 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:foundry tools? tool makers? Sematech 450mm plan?

Sematech's announcement of a plan to hasten the industry's move to 450mm wafers has driven a wedge between the semiconductor equipment community and some chipmakers, rekindling the debate over who will fund the development of next-generation fab tools!or whether the shift should in fact proceed at all.

Sources suggested the consortium is hijacking the transition to serve its own interests. Some said Intel, whose influence in Sematech runs deep, is looking to wrest control of the process from the larger group. And IC equipment vendors warned the 450mm buildout could bankrupt their industry.

Semiconductor equipment companies, still smarting from having borne the brunt of the R&D burden for the painful 300mm transition, found ample reason to decry the International Sematech Manufacturing Initiative's ISMI 450mm program, recently unveiled at Semicon West. The plan calls for some chipmakers to make a more direct transition from today's 300mm fabs to the 450mm wafer size, which is targeted for the 2012-2014 time frame.

'Who's paying?'
"The question is: Who is going to pay for it?" asked Edward Grady, president and CEO of Brooks Automation Inc. "The equipment industry can't afford" to develop 450mm tools, Grady declared.

By contrast, a plan Sematech floated last year has found widespread support among IC equipment vendors. That effort, dubbed 300mmPrime, has identified as many as 25 productivity enhancements that could be applied to to existing fabs as well as future 450mm installations. They include advances in single-wafer processing, and direct interfaces between wafer carriers and fab tools. The program seeks to push out the timetable for mammoth, costly 450mm plants by improving the efficiency of current fabs. Over time, however, 300mmPrime could serve as a bridge to the 450mm era!if or when the larger wafers are required.

During a press event at Semicon, Tom Abell, 450mm program manager at Sematech, said the consortium will support and fund both programs, which he called complementary.

Foundry tool makers cool to Sematech 450mm plan

Sematech launched ISMI 450mm, Abell said, because 300mmPrime "falls short of the traditional cost-reduction requirements to stay on Moore's Law." Even as the older program improves the efficiency of 300mm fabs, he said, the 450mm plan will define and develop standards for next-generation wafers. Sematech expects to develop 450mm fab guidelines and test wafers in 2008.

But a direct move to 450mm "is not the way to go," argued Klaus Rinnen, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "Improving the efficiency of 300mm is the way to go."

And Tom Caulfield, executive VP of sales, marketing and customer service at fab-tool supplier Novellus Systems Inc., questioned the logic of implementing two plans simultaneously. "Now you have two parallel programs, when no one can even afford one path," Caulfield said.

If or when 450mm fab tools do appear, the machines could be "five to eight times" more expensive than existing gear, said Jerry Cutini, president and CEO of chip equipment supplier Aviza Technology Inc.

Two years ago, VLSI Research Inc. released a sobering report on the topic. The market research firm urged the IC industry to push out the appearance of 450mm wafer fabs to between 2020 and 2025!a delay of more than a decade from the current schedule.

The firm estimated that it could cost the IC equipment industry a staggering $102 billion to develop 450mm tools. It's unclear whether the industry could afford to devise the tools even if developments costs could be brought down to $20 billion, the report concludes.

Intel!one of the few chipmakers that can afford to build 450mm fabs!has been the biggest proponent of taking the plunge, arguing that the larger wafers will keep the industry on track with Moore's Law. The company assumes a transition interval of 15 years between wafer generations. Intel itself would like to build 450mm fabs in the 2012 to 2014 time frame.

The 450mm debate was a quiet affair until early 2006, when ISMI endorsed and defined 300mmPrime. While most members advocated that program's interim approach, Intel and Samsung pushed for a direct transition, sources said. (Sematech's members are Advanced Micro Devices, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Infineon, Intel, Matsushita, Micron, NEC, NXP, Qimonda, Renesas, Samsung, Spansion, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and Texas Instruments.)

'Copy exact'
Observers noted that Intel has long followed a "copy exact" fab strategy, under which the chip giant uses the same tool sets and processes within its plants worldwide. The 300mmPrime program, which is looking to reconfigure the classic 300mm fab, runs counter to that strategy, they said.

Some also suggested that Intel and Samsung are looking to gain a competitive advantage by outspending chip rivals with shallower pockets. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how Intel's main rival, AMD, could afford to build a 450mm fab. At present, even a 300mm fab buildout would be a stretch for the cash-strapped chipmaker.

Given Intel's heft within Sematech, some critics have wondered whether the chip giant's support of the new program is a veiled bid to derail 300mmPrime.

Asked whether Intel was the driving force behind the new program, Paolo Gargini, an Intel fellow and director of technology strategy for the company's Technology and Manufacturing Group, said Sematech as a group "will decide where it will take us."

Equipment vendors' reluctance to turn out tools for 450mm is rooted in the previous wafer transition, from 200mm to 300mm. The IC equipment community bore a large percentage of the 300mm equipment development costs, only to be left holding the bag when many chipmakers delayed their 300mm fabs. Eventually, those fabs came online, but by some estimates it could take 30 years for the industry to recoup its massive investment.

'Way too early'
For that reason and others, "it's way too early" to develop 450mm machines, said Lou Steen, VP of marketing for the U.S. unit of chip equipment giant Tokyo Electron Ltd. (TEL). "I think it's a huge mistake to rush into 450mm like we did at 300mm."

The ROI for 450mm tools is questionable, since the equipment market for the next wafer generation is projected to be limited at best. Only a few chipmakers!Intel, Samsung and possibly Toshiba and TSMC!can afford to build 450mm fabs, which could cost $10 billion or more.

Most IC equipment companies are small to midsized operations with limited R&D budgets. "I don't think [450 mm] will bankrupt the industry, but it might decimate the industry," said Aviza's Cutini.

Even the larger equipment companies have expressed little interest in gearing up for the shift. "Our R&D focus is more on the next technology node than the next wafer size," said Michael Splinter, president and CEO of Applied Materials Inc. "We think there is so much to gain in 300mm productivity."

Andr└-Jacques Auberton-Herv└, presi- dent, CEO and chairman of silicon-on-insulator wafer specialist Soitec SA, wondered whether the 450mm buildout will occur, since so few can afford it.

Stanley Myers, president and CEO of Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International, said he thinks 450mm has a "50/50 chance of making it."

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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