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Could 450mm wafers play away from the leading edge?

Posted: 30 Jan 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wafer processing? semiconductor prototyping? digital manufacturing process?

When the processing of integrated circuits on 450mm diameter wafer comes, many assume that it will do so first for the most advanced digital manufacturing processes. Conventional wisdom runs that it will be Intel Corp., or perhaps Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC), that will invest billions of dollars to gain the economies of scale that come with larger wafers. And they will do it to run their newest digital processes and most valuable chip designs.

That is the way it was for the initial transition to 300mm wafers, and other transitions before it, with older fabs running smaller wafers naturally becoming the home for older legacy production.

But does it have to be that way? It would seem that in the course of preparing a report on the potential impact of 450mm wafers on the chip industry for the European Commission, Future Horizons has at least considered the possibility of 450mm wafer manufacturing being introduced away from the leading edge.

One year ago Future Horizons and Decision SA were awarded a one-year joint contract to assess the impact of 450mm wafer processing on Europe and the benefits of a 450mm semiconductor prototyping line being located in Europe. And that report is going through a final review prior to presentation to the European Commission, Future Horizons analysts said.

While the introduction of 450mm wafers clearly has implications for equipment companies such as lithography stepper maker ASML Holding NV and other European equipment suppliers, the European Commission is also eager to retain component manufacturing in Europe. The move to 450mm manufacturing could have implications for companies such as STMicroelectronics, Infineon Technologies AG and NXP Semiconductors .

"450mm wafer fabs: is there an economic argument away from leading edge? Yes!" said Malcolm Penn, founder and chief analyst with Future Horizons, during a market forecast presentation held here. When asked what he meant by non-leading edge, he said: "At 65nm or something like that, not leading edge, something non-immersion lithography."

However, one of the key considerations for 450mm wafers would be what individual designs could command enough volume to justify manufacture on 450mm diameter wafers where tens of thousands of chips would be produced per wafer. This would exclude many applications, unless all wafers runs were to be multiproject wafer runs, and could leave only a few types of analog, digital and RF ICs able to benefit.

Could analog, RF be made on 450mm wafers?
There are numerous precedents of how trailing-edge manufacturing has received a cost benefit from moving up to a large wafer size but usually this is done after equipment has been developed to service the leading-edge digital chip manufacture.

Even while it was pulling back from developing leading-edge digital processes in 3Q09 Texas Instruments Inc. (TI) announced it was opening RFAB, the industry's first 300mm wafer fab for analog ICs in Richardson, Texas. By November 2010, TI was ramping up production at RFAB and rival Maxim Integrated Products Inc. has recently qualified and shipped production analog product built on 300mm wafers. Maxim and TI separately claimed that 300mm manufacturing would give them a competitive advantage over their rivals.

Infineon is soon to begin volume production of power devices on thinned 300mm wafers in Dresden, which could provide a similar competitive advantage.

STMicroelectronics, which closed a number of 6-inch wafer fabs during the last decade, has focused a lot of analog manufacturing on 200mm wafer fabs in Singapore. While those moves may have helped with cost structures in the past ST may now be at a disadvantage and need to move manufacturing on to 300mm wafers at least.

"Could you use 450mm to replace older wafer fabs and get significant cost reductions?" asked Penn. Some people argue that because many operations in chip manufacturing are step-and-repeat operations, the area benefits are not so large. And it requires highly engineered wafer tables that can accelerate and decelerate; all things that would push up the cost of equipment and which can usually only be amortized with a move to higher-value chip production.

Penn responded: "450mm is going to happen. It will split the industry between the haves and the have nots. So the question is what do you do about it? If you are fabless, or fablite-going-fabless, you don't care," said Penn. But it is a key enabling technology, it does matter."

Penn agreed that if a number of older wafer fabs were replaced with a single 450mm More-than-Moore wafer fab it would be likely that the fab would have to cope with a diverse mix of processes and products. "I don't see it as a problem. A variety of processes can be run. It depends how you set it up."

- Peter Clarke
??EE Times

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