NAPA, Calif. While a heated debate continues to ensue over next-generation, 450-mm wafer fabs, several semiconductor equipment and materials vendors are quietly exploring and developing their first prototype 450-mm technologies.
Sources believe that silicon wafer suppliers in Japan are developing their first 450-mm prototypes and will shortly unveil the products for R&D purposes only. Japan’s Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. Ltd. (Tokyo) and Mitsubishi Sumitomo Silicon Corp. (Sumco) (Tokyo) are the world’s first and second largest silicon wafer makers, respectively.
Another vendor, Entegris Inc. (Chaska, Minn.), is said to be “exploring” the development of 450-mm wafer handling technologies. “If I don’t start my R&D now, I could get left behind in the market,” said one chip-equipment vendor at the SEMI Strategic Business Conference here this week.
Still, there is a huge debate taking place on the 450-mm front. At least one company, Intel Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.), is urging the industry to migrate towards 450-mm fabs in the 2012-to-2014 time frame. Some speculate that 450-mm fabs could cost up to $10 billion or more.
“If we don’t keep investing, we won’t keep growing,” said Robert Bruck, vice president of the Technology and Manufacturing Group and director of Supply Chain Engineering at Intel, during a presentation at the SEMI event.
Recently, 13 semiconductor makers recently met behind closed doors to hammer out a road map to 450-mm wafers. Members of the International Sematech Manufacturing Initiative (ISMI) will take a first crack at defining 300mm-prime, a set of about 20 productivity enhancements aimed at helping today’s 300-mm fabs step gradually to next-generation wafer sizes.
Bruck insisted that the shift from 300-mm to 450-mm fabs will be much easier, as compared to the painful migration from 200-mm to 300-mm. “There are so many things we had to learn at 300-mm,” Bruck said, referring to the fab automation standards, handling systems and other technologies.
With 450-mm, “there is no need for re-learning,” he said. “So, [450-mm] is a step function in the wafer size.”
Still other equipment companies, including fab-tool giant Applied Materials Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.), is resisting the move to develop 450-mm gear. Earlier this year, Mike Splinter, president and chief executive of Applied Materials, warned that the semiconductor equipment industry is not ready to move full speed ahead and develop next-generation, 450-mm tools due to a funding shortfall.
Many believe that the vast majority of chip and fab-tool makers cannot afford to make the giant leap into the 450-mm era; most vendors are small- to mid-size companies that do not have the R&D budgets to develop 450-mm fabs and tools.
One thing is clear: if or when the industry moves towards 450-mm fabs, it could accelerate the consolidation in the chip and fab-tool industries. “It may drive consolidation in the industry,” Bruck said.
Others dismiss the need for 450-mm fabs in the first place, saying they are too expensive and unneeded. “I think 300-mm will be the last wafer size,” said Chris Mack, gentleman scientist and former lithography executive at KLA-Tencor Corp. (San Jose, Calif.)
Only a few companies, namely Intel and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., could benefit and afford 450-mm fabs, said Richard Deininger, fab-tool expert and general partner for Taylor Deininger Partners Inc. (Austin, Texas), a consulting firm.
“There is a very large part of the industry with 6- and 8-inch wafer fabs. And they are still making money,” he said. “There are only two companies that could afford [450-mm fabs].”
What’s more, the transition from 300-mm to 450-mm fabs could be challenging based on past history. The transition from 200-mm to 300-mm fabs was “painful,” recalled Rod Morgan, executive officer for IM Flash Technologies LLC (Boise, Ida.), a joint NAND flash venture between Intel and Micron Technologies Inc.
Plus, it’s expensive: a 450-mm fab could cost anywhere from $6-to-$10 billion, he said. And more importantly, the challenge is to have a products portfolio that could a 450-mm fab.
Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. “I think the jury is still out [on 450-mm fabs],” said Tom Gow, director of 300-mm manufacturing engineering for IBM Corp.’s Microelectronics Group. “It’s a matter of economics.”