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Chip vendors unite for e-beam initiative

Posted: 26 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:e-beam technology? direct-write initiative? semiconductor industry?

The eBeam Initiative, a multi-company effort dedicated to the advancement of e-beam direct-write technology for semiconductor prototyping and low-volume manufacturing, was formally launched at the SPIE Advanced Lithography conference Feb. 24.

The effort initially includes more than a dozen companies from across the chip spectrum, including EDA vendors, ASIC suppliers and makers of e-beam tools. The group is lead by Direct2Silicon Inc. (D2S) and guided by a formal steering committee that includes Advantest, CEA/Leti, e-Shuttle, Fujitsu Microelectronics and Vistec.

The semiconductor industry has long been interested in applications of direct-write e-beam technology, which removes costly photomask sets from the equation and enables patterning of circuitry directly on a wafer. As photomask costs have skyrocketed, many companies have tried to develop various direct-write technologies. E-beam, prized for its tight linewidth control, has never demonstrated the run time necessary to make it practical.

The spiraling cost of photomasks has been blamed largely for a decrease in overall chip design starts that has been occurring for several years. Firms are hesitant to invest the moneysometimes more than $1 million at leading process nodesto secure a mask set for a prototype device without knowing how a chip will perform or, more importantly, how it will sell. As a result, critics say, chip vendors are increasingly focusing on a smaller number of devices for big market opportunities, stifling innovation. Reducing mask costs for chips would increase design starts and reduce time-to-market for a wide range of chips, according to the eBeam initiative.

Representatives of the eBeam Initiative, speaking at a launch event, said the work will focus on developing a specific design approach that can reduce write times. The goal of the project is to make it possible to write a wafer on a single e-beam tool in one hour. Currently, it typically takes about 24 hours, they said.

Aki Fujimura, chairman and CEO of D2S, said reducing write time by decreasing the number of e-beam "shots" needed to write a pattern to between three and five from currently 10 to 25 would be the key breakthrough needed to make e-beam direct-write more practical.

Joint effort
A paper authored by representatives from D2S and STMicroelectronics, Advantest and CEA-LETI was presented Feb. 24 describing the state of technical challenges and throughput in cell projection lithography and variable shaped beam tools.

Fujimura said D2S is also involved in work with other members of the eBeam alliance on design-for-e-beam technology. Various members of the group have already collaborated to validate maskless manufacturing with successful test wafers at the 45- and 32nm nodes, he said.

"We hope in the coming year to have different combinations of all these companies working together to reduce mask costs," Fujimura said.

Fujimura said the group hopes to demonstrate writing speeds of one-hour per wafer by the end of 2009.

Jack Harding, chairman, president and CEO of eSilicon Corp., who is serving the eBeam Initiative in an advisory capacity, said the group is representative of the kind of collaborative effort that has historically "punctuated" the semiconductor industry when a "bunch of smart people come together to solve a problem."

Harding said he was troubled by the increasing costs of chipmaking and the drop off in design starts. Most innovations, he said, come from startups of 50 people or less, something he said is becoming increasingly difficult based on the associated costs.

"I simply worry that there aren't going to be enough people out there making stuff," he said.

Harding singled out photomasks and EDA tools as being the "culprits" in the semiconductor manufacturing supply chain that to cost of development. These things, he said, carry the same high costs whether a chip is successful or not.

Obviously there are no photomask suppliers involved in the eBeam Initiative. But earlier Tuesday, Franklin Kalk, executive VP and chief technology officer at Toppan Photomasks, said maskless technologies for prototyping will have a place in the semiconductor industry and be important for "opening up design," enabling more prototyping and increasing the number of design starts.

- Dylan McGrath
EE Times

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