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Nikon eyes litho rebound with double-patterning

Posted: 15 Dec 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:lithography? Nikon double-patterning? foundry?

It's been a tough year for Japan's two lithography companiesCanon Inc. and Nikon Corp. But Nikon is looking to regain share, especially in the upcoming double-patterning era, according to an analyst.

In 2008, ASML Holding NV lengthened its lead in the lithography stepper market, according to market research firm Gartner Inc., which also projected that overall stepper sales would decline 54 percent this year.

ASML of the Netherlands controlled 65.4 percent of worldwide lithography stepper revenue last year, compared to 23.3 percent for No. 2 player Nikon, according to Gartner. Canon, the No. 3 player, is clearly struggling and nearly out of the game for chip fabs.

In May, Nikon said it planned to cut 1,000 jobs within its chip-equipment unit due to the ongoing IC downturn. Generally, Nikon's lithography business centers around one customerIntel Corp. ASML dominates the flash and foundry segments.

Nikon's "order trend for IC steppers appears to be unchanged. Most of the movement in (193nm) immersion is on the CPU side for Nikon, which is rather stable and predictable," said David Motozo Rubenstein, an analyst with MF Global FXA Securities Ltd. in Tokyo.

But the big question is clear: Can Nikon regain share? "We believe that Nikon makes a strong case for a possible market share increase when double patterning steppers begin to ship in the spring of 2010," he said in a report. "Nikon claims superior specs in alignment (2.0 nanometer versus 2.5 nm at ASML) and throughput (200 wafers per hour versus 170 at ASML)."

Still, Nikon has some work to do with the tool. "Nikon's development of the DP stepper is 70 percent complete with 3.5nm and 140wph, which is apparently already near ASML's spring goal of 3.5nm and 174wph," he said. "ASML's future goal appears to be 2nm and 200wph, which is Nikon's near-term spring goal. Over the next 6 months several chipmakers will be evaluating both tools."

In doubling patterning, an IC maker is essentially doubling the process steps and creating two masks, thereby boosting production costs. There are also various flavors of doubling pattering: Litho-litho-etch (LLE), litho-etch-litho-etch (LELE), spacer and others.

LLE may be cheaper than the rival LELE method, but LLE uses newfangled processes that are somewhat unproven. LLE uses two lithography exposures and two resist layers to create smaller IC features. In comparison, LELE uses two lithography exposures and hard-mask etches to create smaller features.

A third method is called spacer or self-aligned double patterning. Memory makers prefer this path.

Leading-edge logic chipmakers may use one or more types of schemes, depending on the product type. So far, the most desirable technology is LLE, due to fewer process steps and cost.

Meanwhile, Nikon's prospects are strong in another market: LCD steppers. Canon and Nikon are battling each other in the LCD stepper market.

Nikon's "outlook is in-line with guidance of 28 units for 2H. There have been recent developments in new lines for China. Samsung, LG and AUO are adding 8G capacity. Chimei is adding 7.5G, and several Chinese are adding capacity at the 6G level. We believe that Nikon's LCD stepper sales have good momentum and should grow by at least 20 percent year-over-year in FY3/11," Rubenstein said.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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