Thursday, February 24, 2011

WaferNEWS Watch: 450mm is coming, but after EUV and TSVs

Barclays analyst CJ Muse updates his views on a 450mm wafer-size transition, following TSMC's stated switchover plans. His take: 450mm will happen by or before 2018, but other key chip manufacturing transitions will have to come first -- namely through-silicon vias (TSV) and EUV lithography.

After an initial push by the self-appointed 450mm Big 3 (Intel, Samsung, TSMC) asking for a 2012 pilot line, things quieted down (at least publicly) due in part to vociferous reception from suppliers, and then the global and industry downturns. Now, with recent news of Intel's forthcoming 450mm-capable D1X facility in Oregon and its planned new AZ fab (also 450mm capable), and TSMC's stated 450mm schedule (pilot line in 2015-2016, ramping production in 2015-2016), industry chatter about 450mm has "begun to percolate" again, he notes. Equipment makers, long resistant to the idea of 450mm, have started commenting publicly to the eventuality of a transition. (The 300mm wafer-size upgrade increased processing surface area by 2.25x, but they only could get roughly 40% more for 300mm tools, Muse points out.)

But capital intensity for leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing is on the rise, and there are more pressing transitions that will need to be addressed first, he says. First, expand use of through-silicon vias (TSV). Then, incorporate EUV lithography for finer features where immersion (and its associated tweaks) can no longer go, presumably sometime soon after 20nm. And being third-fiddle to TSV and EUV will actually help 450mm's cause, because 450mm will help chipmakers reduce their rising manufacturing costs, and rising capital intensity translates into more business for tool suppliers so they'll have a better economic foothold for the R&D.

"We will likely see a chicken and egg game, but we do expect chipmakers to help support the tool development efforts with equipment companies, at the same time, sharing some of the higher dollars received in the current golden era of capital intensity," Muse writes. His back-of-the-envelope calculations (a $40B equipment market, 15% R&D spend on it, and a seven-year transition period) suggest tool makers will spend roughly $6B on 450mm, which they "can rather easily come up with," he says, as long as chipmakers add their own funding "in the order of billions" to help the transition.

Muse also lays odds on who will benefit most, and least, from the 450mm future. Adding more wafer surface area means that beam-tool process steps (i.e. litho, implant, and metrology) will need to be improved to maintain their throughput, so suppliers in these fields should see a boost in capital spending. Areas that won't see much help from 450mm would be in vacuum-based process equipment.

"The ROI argument still exists for 450mm, as has existed for EUV," Muse sums up. "But if [chipmakers] all want it in no uncertain terms, and are willing put money to make it happen, it will happen."

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