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Canon litho dreams hinge on nanoimprint

Posted: 16 Mar 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Canon litho business? lithography? nanoimprint? EUV?

For years, Canon Inc. has watched its share in the microlithography equipment market decay. Now, according to a prominent semiconductor capital equipment analyst, Canon's seventh attempt to penetrate the argon fluoride (ArF) 193nm lithography market has apparently failed and the company's "great white hope" rests with an undisclosed relationship with nanoimprint lithography vendor Molecular Imprints Inc. (MII).

"There is a partnership agreement between the two companies, which is considered to be very important," said G. Dan Hutcheson, CEO of VLSI Research Inc., in an interview with EE Times March 10. Hutcheson declined to divulge details about the nature of the agreement, which has not been publicly acknowledged by either Canon or MII. But he said the two companies have been working together for at least a year.

Hutcheson said it is possible that Canon could acquire MII, but added that such a deal is pure speculation. "Molecular Imprints is still burning cash," he said. "At some point, they either become have to become profitable or someone is going to acquire them."

A spokesperson for MII would neither confirm nor deny that the company has a working agreement with Canon. Spokespersons for Canon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last week, in an issue of VLSI's newsletter, The Chip Insider, Hutcheson said Canon laid low at the recent SPIE Advanced Lithography conference and that "it has become more clear" that the company's seventh attempt to penetrate the 193nm lithography market has failed. Hutcheson wrote that Canon, which has abandoned efforts to build a next-generation extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography system, could gain "a clear point of differentiation" through working with MII.

Once among the leaders in semiconductor lithography, Canon saw its market share slip to just over 11 percent by 2008, the last year for which numbers are available, according to Gartner Inc.

By last fall, according to sources, Canon was telling customers it would no longer develop immersion or dry 193nm systems. The company appears to have abandoned efforts to develop EUV or maskless lithography technology, focusing instead on develop of its older i-line and 248nm lithography lines for use in LCD and mix-and-match chip production.

Close partnership with!or acquisition of!MII would put Canon on a different path from ASML Holding NV of the Netherlands and Nikon Corp. of Japan, ranked first and second, respectively, in semiconductor lithography revenue. "For Canon, it's a Hail Mary pass," Hutcheson said, adding that Canon has "nothing to lose."

ASML and Nikon reportedly beat Canon to the punch in 193nm lithography, freezing Canon out. Last September, Hutcheson told EE Times that Canon had developed a leading-edge lithography tool but that customers had already adopted either ASML or Nikon and were hesitant to switch.

Both ASML and Nikon have also been working for years to develop EUV tools. EUV was once seen as the leading candidate for lithography at the 22nm half pitch node, but has recently been pushed out!again!to 16nm production.

Meanwhile, nanoimprint, once viewed as a potential challenger or successor to EUV, remains stuck in the R&D niche. The technology has not cracked mainstream production in semiconductor fabs, and at last month's SPIE conference it was revealed that the technology won't be in production for several years in perhaps its biggest potential market: HDDs. Nanoimprint advocates had been hoping MII and other vendors could generate much needed revenue in HDD production while continuing to develop the technology for eventual semiconductor production. But HDD makers reportedly delayed the transition, due to some unforeseen issues with template production and other reasons.

Canon already has a relationship with another nanoimprint lithography company, Obducat AB. Canon's market arm acts as Obducat's distributor. Last September Canon sold an Obducat system to Toshiba Corp. on Obducat's behalf.

MII has sold 10 systems in the HDD industry, including Hitachi Global Storage Technologies and Fujitsu Ltd. Chip processing consortium Sematch, Toshiba and others have also ordered tools.

It remains unclear if MII is profitable. The company is privately held and does not report quarterly financials!though it claimed to be hiring and gaining momentum amid the downturn last year.

Still, MII is backed by some $90 million in funding from venture capital, strategic investors and government. It's conceivable that investors could be getting antsy and looking for an exit strategy!particulary if the company's prospects for profitability are still on the horizon.

In the interview, Hutcheson expressed admiration for MII, but said nanoimprint's prospects versus EUV remain grim. "The progress they've made is really impressive, but there are still so many issues with [nanoimprint] that it's still not competitive with EUV," Hutcheson said. He added that the amount of money that has been invested in EUV dwarfs any investment in nanoimprint to this point.

- Dylan McGrath
EE Times

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