After years of hype and false starts, the nanoimprint lithography market is set to explode--or, perhaps, implode.
In one scenario, nanoimprint tool vendors--whose business thus far has been largely limited to small R&D markets--are poised to fulfill past promises, enabling a low-cost paradigm shift for the production of optoelectronics, semiconductors, storage and other products. But nanoimprint vendors could also be on the brink of a shakeout, wrought by too many vendors chasing too small a market.
Business considerations aside, nanoimprint is back in vogue from a technological standpoint after having been dismissed earlier in the decade by some lithography experts. The delays and soaring costs for extreme-ultraviolet (EUV) and other next-generation lithography technologies have rekindled an interest in nanoimprint in the IC world, particularly among the NAND flash community. The storage and LED camps are likewise looking at nanoimprint for the development of next-generation recording media and photonics-based LEDs.
Nanoimprint does not use expensive optics; rather, it employs a simple stamping or hot embossing process to generate features on a device. The process starts with a template or mold. An electron-beam tool then patterns select features on the template, based on a 1:1 reduction scheme. Using a nanoimprint tool--which resembles a giant stamping machine--the template is pressed against a heated, single-layer substrate, creating the tiny feature sizes.
The second looks at nanoimprint have spurred a new wave of business activity. Hitachi Ltd. and Toshiba Corp. are among the well-known names that have entered the nanoimprint market. In May, Nanolithosolution Inc. joined the fray with a nanoimprint technology that was conceived at Hewlett-Packard Co.
Nanoimprint pioneer Nanonex Inc., meanwhile, has entered the semiconductor equipment arena, positioning itself to compete against Molecular Imprints Inc. (MII) and Obducat AB. EV Group and Suss AG also take part in the market. Lux Research (New York) believes that the nanoimprint tool business could grow to nearly $235 million by 2010.
For now, however, nanoimprint remains a small business that has been a money-losing proposition thus far for some players. And it's still unclear whether the technology will move out of the R&D stage, leaving some observers to predict that consolidation will occur in the supplier base.
Nanoimprint remains promising in "applications other than semiconductors,'' said G. Dan Hutcheson, chief executive of VLSI Research Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.), a research firm.
"In general, nanoimprint is still in the transition stage," said Patrik Lundstrom, chief executive of market leader Obducat (Malmo, Sweden). "We are moving from the R&D environment to the mainstream. I think we'll see some movement in the next 12 to 18 months."
Most observers predict no real action this year. Estimates are that only 30 to 50 nanoimprint machines shipped in 2006. In 2007, shipments are widely expected to be below 50 units; some sources estimate that vendors in total will ship only 10 to 20 real tools this year.