Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Early 450mm orders: Tire-kicking or seat-warming?

As formal efforts to prove 450mm cost-effectiveness get underway, we're starting to see the announcements from tool vendors joining the fray. Neither company is outing its customer(s), but the news has generated some interesting analysis about the state of 450mm progress. German supplier Innolas, for example, says it will deliver a 450mm system for wafer sorting/laser marking to a customer's site in 1H12 for development and fine-tuning. Klaus Jotz, Innolas technical information manager, didn't identify the customer but did confirm that it's a single entity.

Another announcement, however, has generated much more interest and speculation. Molecular Imprints says it received an order to build a 450mm nanoimprint (J-FIL) litho tool to be ready by 2H12, including a five-year multi-year wafer patterning services contract and an option to buy more such systems. Paul Hofemann, VP of marketing and bizdev, declined to name the customer except to hint that it is a "leading IC manufacturer [...] that has taken a lead role for most of the early 450mm tool procurement for this [G450c] consortium." [Readers can draw their own conclusions.] He also noted the tool will stay in MII's facility to eliminate any delays (e.g. shipping, installation, qualification, training, etc.), which "is consistent with the G450C virtual fab strategy in the early 450mm supply chain," he added. While current contractual commitments are to the one customer, "we had some indications that all members were being consulted during the process," he added.

Many tool vendors have been tinkering with and showing 450mm versions of their process tools, but the one glaring absence has been in litho. About a month ago, ASML offered its own outlook on 450mm adoption that was several years beyond the G450C plan (prototyping after 2016 and production after 2018); clearly ASML has bigger fish to fry (EUV) and will get to 450mm when it has the incentive (time/money) to do so.

Not content to wait, the 450mm players need to get some 450mm wafers patterned now to start their work -- so they're turning to nanoimprint. "Having early access to patterned wafers is in the critical path of 450mm transition and this tactic will shave many months of the schedule," explained MII's Hofemann. He also added that the process was "competitive."

MII and nanoimprint proponents doubtlessly view this as Center Stage to prove the technology's viability for next-gen litho use. In reality, though, analysts argue this is just a way to get 450mm work started, keeping the litho seat warm until ASML can come into the fold with an EUV and/or immersion platform. "Realistically the semis guys needed some way to get a reasonable pattern on a 450 wafer so that they can start looking at things like etch and dep uniformity," thinks Gartner VP/analyst Bob Johnson. Fellow Gartner VP/analyst Dean Freeman noted that nanoimprint's pricetag, compared with tens-of-millions immersion or EUV tools, makes it practically a "disposable" option. On the other hand, it's not the first alternative 450mm litho tool being trotted out; EV Group has printed some 450mm wafers too. Freeman added that we've seen this before at the 300mm transition, where some smaller companies stepped up for some early unique-tool work, but "faded to the background as the larger companies stepped in with products."

So on the one hand, the MII 450mm order does open a door to show nanoimprint can prove itself in a smaller-scale leading-edge environment, which could pave the way for some future business. "MII has a one-two year window of opportunity to demonstrate that they deserve a place in future semi manufacturing before the ASML juggernaut pushes them aside," Johnson says. But it's more likely just a quick fix to get some wafers running to see what other process tools can do, while keeping the seat warm until more heavily-adopted litho tools (i.e. ASML) can get ready. And MII isn't alone here, either; Freeman notes Oxford Instruments has a 450mm etch system but likely won't displace Lam or TEL. And Freeman pointed out that nanoimprint still has its own mask-set hurdles, e.g. 1X mask at 10-20nm and associated alignment challenges. "If it was a better solution we likely would have seen more shipments at 300mm," he points out.

Another interesting note is that both these 450mm tool announcements are to single customers with singular ownership. There likely is a gentleman's agreement among 450mm consortium participants about how tools can be shared, at least at the beginning, Freeman explained. "At this time it is difficult to say if this will be an exclusive club or anyone with a piece of 450mm gear will be able to participate and get the tires kicked on their equipment," he said. These two recent tool announcements going to individual customers, though, suggests that at least starting out, individual companies have the option to be responsible for their own wafer set for process development. If so they could very well stick with tool vendors that are particular to their own process flow, meaning the 450mm pilot line could end up being a smattering of equipment from different companies, he notes. Don't be surprised if much of the early 450mm work doesn't happen at Albany CNSE's new Nanofab X now being built, as the chipmakers keep any special configurations to themselves. "As the 450GC develops and we see how the companies play with each other we may see some surprising developments happen," he suggests. -- J.M.

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