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Applied takes on KLA-Tencor in mask inspection market

Posted: 17 Apr 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:photomask inspection? cleaning equipment? wafer fab?

Applied Materials Inc. has made its entry into the photomask inspection business, by rolling out a new tool based on a breakthrough aerial imaging technology. Meanwhile, rival KLA-Tencor Corp. has rolled out a technology said to accomplish the same fete: It shows the defects on the wafer within its mask inspection system.

The chip-equipment vendor has also entered the photomask cleaning equipment sector with the introduction of a system that claims to enable damage-free reticles. The product is geared to attack the so-called and dreaded "haze effect" on the mask.

The move into the mask inspection business has been expected. As reported last month, Applied has been quietly selling a mask inspection tool, dubbed Aera2. One customer, Intel Corp., has procured the machine for its captive mask shop, according to reports.

The Aera2 combines several parts of the processsuch as inspection, aerial imaging simulation and reviewon the same platform, at two times the throughput over machines from the king in the business: KLA-Tencor.

Race to the top
In fact, Applied hopes to dethrone KLA-Tencor, the dominate player in the photomask inspection world. For years, KLA-Tencor monopolized photomask inspection, considered the most expensive part of the mask-making process. KLA-Tencor, which recently rolled out a new mask inspection line, reportedly charges some $30 million or so for each tool, analysts said.

Over the years, a number of companies have entered the mask inspection business in hopes of knocking KLA-Tencor off its perch. But all of the new entrants have failed or went under, leaving KLA-Tencor in the envious position of being the sole vendor in a critical market.

Now, however, KLA-Tencor appears to be getting some new and viable competitionfinally. Japan's NuFlare Technology Inc. has begun to field a mask inspection product and is making a dent in the market. And now, Applied has entered the mask inspection market, which was estimated to be a $464 million business in 2007, according to Gartner Inc.

"There is a huge need for a second supplier," said Mark Wagner, general manager of the mask inspection division within the process diagnostics and control unit within Applied. Part of that division resides in Rehovot, Israel, which is where Applied developed the machine.

"The pull for a good solution is tremendous," he told EE Times.

Applied claims it has a competitive advantage over KLA-Tencor, which uses more conventional mask inspection techniques. Based on an off-wavelength 257nm source, KLA-Tencor's so-called TeraScan tools enable defect detection at the 45nm node and beyond, by using die-to-die and die-to-database inspection modes.

KLA-Tencor's TeraScan machines are primarily targeted for the mask shop. Earlier this year, KLA-Tencor rolled out a trio of next-generation, mask inspection systems, dubbed the TeraFab. These mask inspection systems are aimed for wafer fabs, which are now scrambling to qualify and inspect incoming masks for contaminants.

The new TeraFab systems are based on the company's STARlight2 technology. STARlight2 detects crystal growth and progressive defects on production photomasks-"a critical class of yield killers that impact device performance and reliability, according to KLA-Tencor.

KLA-Tencor introduced Monday its latest mask inspection technology, called Wafer Plane Inspection (WPI). This is a technology said to find all defects on a mask and also shows the defects that will print on the wafer. Geared for 32nm mask defect challenges, WPI operates up to 40 percent faster than previous inspection systems, potentially reducing costs.

Using the TeraScanHR mask inspection platform, advancements in software algorithm and image computing technologies allow users to access three distinct inspection planes: reticle, aerial and wafer.

"32nm-generation mask inspection increasingly requires multiple inspection modes to identify all defects," said Harold Lehon, VP and general manager of KLA-Tencor's reticle and photomask inspection division. "With the TeraScan HR and its WPI capability, mask-makers and chip makers can now use their inspection system to find all defects of interest, and also accurately distinguish which mask defects are likely to transfer to the printed circuit on the wafer."

Ready to take over
In response, Applied claims to take mask inspection to the next level. "We do the work for the mask maker," Wagner said. "We tell you what the wafer will look like."

The new tool from Applied is geared for the 45nm node and beyond in low K1, optical proximity correction and related mask applications. The tool is also said to reduce the cost-of-ownership in the mask shop.

In the past, a mask shop would require separate inspection tools as well as aerial image review machines, which are offered by Carl Zeiss SMT AG. In comparison, Applied provides these capabilities in the same machine, thereby lowering fab costs.

The Aera2's aerial imaging technology "detects defects according to their impact on the wafer, filtering out the large number of non-printing defects that plague conventional mask inspection systems."

Applied's aerial imaging technology resembles or emulates a 193nm optical scanner. A 193nm source illuminates the mask. A pupil or projection magnifies the image by some 100 times. By placing a CCD image sensor on the wafer plane, the system is said to provide a "what you see is what you print" image.

Like its rivals, the Aera2 provides die-to-die and die-to-database techniques to enable mask inspection. Applied also provides an optional IntenCD feature, which "leverages the aerial imaging data to create high-precision, high-density CD uniformity maps of the entire mask," according to Applied.

Targeting 32nm
Meanwhile, in another major move, Applied also rolled out the Tetra Reticle Clean, a wet-clean system that is said to enable damage-free particle removal for masks at the 32nm node and beyond. The system makes use of sulfur-free, ammonia-based cleaning agents. It is said to offer up to four times the throughput of competing machines, said Brad Eaton, global product manager for the mask and cleans division at the Applied.

The machine uses what Applied calls "Uniform Cavitation Megasonics" technology, which "distributes energy evenly over the entire mask surface, avoiding the damage-causing spikes generated by traditional point-source megasonic cleans," according to Applied.

It also makes use of NanoDroplet technology, "which utilizes a nozzle design to create small, uniform droplets that evenly distribute energy and help deliver 32nm node and beyond cleaning performance," the company said.

The tool, coupled with the mask inspection system, could be a key to attack the so-called "haze effect." Sulfur- and ammonia-based cleaning agents cause "haze" on the mask. This, in turn, degrades the optical characteristics of the mask. This is prompting many chip-makers to "move mask cleaning into the fabs," Eaton said.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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