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Samsung gains edge in 450mm technology

Posted: 12 Jun 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wafer? vendors? fab? chip?

The 450mm era has finally begun, but will the next-generation wafer size move the IC and chip-equipment industries toward bankruptcy?

The proposed new and costly 450mm fabs are a huge gamble and could indeed make or break the industry. In any event, Japan's SES Co. Ltd reportedly shipped the world's first 450mm toola next-generation wafer cleaning system, according to sources. Sources said the first 450mm tool, which is believed to be a R&D prototype, is said to go to South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.

The event is a major milestone in the possible shift toward 450mm fabs. If Samsung gains an edge in 450mm fabs, it could be bad news for rival memory houses, many of which cannot afford to make the shift to the new wafer size.

Others are also quietly working on 450mm technologies. In the past year, Japan's Nippon Mining & Metals Co. Ltd claimed to develop a 450mm polycrystalline silicon wafer.

''Both Brooks and Asyst Technologies Inc. have at least one robot," said Dean Freeman, analyst, Gartner Inc., in an e-mail newsletter, referring to factory automation equipment in fabs.

''Factory automation has been explored, and at least one equipment vendor has a 450mm tool,'' he added. "There could be more vendors with test beds in a back room. Wafer ingots have been pulled, and sawing and polishing techniques are being developed. Because of this, some progress was made since last year," he noted.

Joining the bandwagon
After some resistance, some fab-tool vendors are jumping on the 450mm bandwagon and the biggest equipment buyers are pushing hard for it.

Last month, Intel, Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd (TSMC) reached an agreement on the need for industry collaboration for 450-mm wafers starting in 2012. Intel, Samsung and TSMC indicate that the semiconductor industry can improve its return on investment and reduce 450mm research and development costs by applying aligned standards, rationalizing changes from 300mm infrastructure and automation, and working toward a common timeline.

The three companies will continue to work with International Sematech (ISMI), which is coordinating industry efforts on 450mm wafer supply, standards and developing equipment test bed capabilities.

As reported, ISMI has outlined a program in the arena. But most equipment makers are not pushing for 450mm, saying it is too expensive. Some believe 450mm is not required and might cause bankruptcy in the industry. Most equipment makers are small-to-midsized companies with limited R&D budgets. The 450mm, as they claimed, is too expensive and 300mm is more than sufficient for future chip-making needs.

What the future holds
The big question is whether the industry will see a prototype 450mm fab by 2012. "Probably not,'' Freeman said, adding that, "For real progress to achieve, the industry needs to determine how to move forward. A realistic cost model, agreed by both sides, is needed first to determine if the economics is reasonable.''

"There are two sides of the story. One believes that it is a requirement as a method to reduce manufacturing costs; and the other believes that the economics doesn't warrant the transition and that the industry will never recover the cost of development. The reality is most likely somewhere in between,'' he noted.

The transition to larger wafers will enable continued growth of the semiconductor industry and help maintain a reasonable cost structure for future IC manufacturing and applications, according to Intel, Samsung and TSMC.

''The equipment makers argued that the economics of moving to a larger wafer size do not make sense,'' Freeman said. ''While historically, the industry has quoted a 30 percent cost improvement with a move to the next wafer size, at 450mm, this probably would not happen because wafer throughput at 450mm would likely be lower than at 300mm, and equipment costs could prove to be higher than the 1.3 times agreed at the 300mm transition,'' he stressed.

The rationale of economics
Economics is the major factor. ''It might be possible to obtain the 30 percent improvement over time as equipment throughput improve, but initially this level of cost improvement is unlikely,'' he said.

''The economics of 450mm will be a big barrier to overcome,'' he added. ''Undoubtedly, some costs could be reduced by collaboration or the use of flat-panel technology; however, the return on investment at this time looks very poor for equipment vendors, and a realistic cost model needs to be jointly developed to clearly estimate the potential cost of 450mm and the possible profit returns.''

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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