SAN FRANCISCO The photomask equipment business is stuck in a lull, but the competition is heating up in the e-beam, inspection and mask repair sectors.
Perhaps the biggest battle is expected to take place in the photomask inspection business. Market leader KLA-Tencor Corp. is quietly showing a new mask inspection tool. Codenamed the 6xx, KLA-Tencor's system is said to sell for a staggering $35-to-$40 million per machine, according to sources.
Not to be outdone, Japan's NuFlare Technology Inc., the semiconductor-equipment spin-off of Toshiba Machine, has made a major entry into the photomask inspection business and is seeing strong demand for the product, said David Motozo Rubenstein, senior analyst with Jefferies Japan Ltd.
The product is a potential threat for KLA-Tencor, which has held a virtual monopoly in the sector. NuFlare's "order forecast is very bullish for this year, as company is taking share from KLA-Tencor's 90 percent market share," Rubenstein said in a report.
NuFlare's laser-based tool was co-developed by Toshiba and NEC. Customers for the tool are DNP, Toppan, among others, he said.
NuFlare's entry comes amid a lull in the photomask equipment sector. Business was slow in the first half, but it should pick up in the second half, said David Lee, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Rave LLC, a supplier mask repair tools.
In total, photomask revenues are expected to grow 5.3 percent from 2005 to 2011, according to Rave. But photomask volumes are projected to decline 0.1 percent during the same period, according to the company.
At present, Toppan is the world's largest photomask vendor with 33 percent share, followed by DNS (22 percent), Photronics (16 percent), TMC (4 percent), Hoya (4 percent), and others (1 percent), according to the firm. Captive mask suppliers represent 20 percent of the market. They include Intel, IBM, Hynix, Micron, Samsung, SMIC and TSMC.
On the equipment front, e-beam, inspection and mask repair among the key sectors. Like inspection, e-beam is a tough market.
NuFlare, which has recently filed an initial public offering (IPO) in Japan, is more known for its presence in the reticle-writing electron-beam market. It competes with Hitachi, JEOL, and, to a lesser extent, Micronic and Vistec. The price for an e-beam tool is around $15-to-$20 million.
NuFlare "is apparently gaining market share on JEOL and could again for a new product," based on 32-nm technology, Rubenstein said. NuFlare's "order forecast for this year is 34 billion yen ($280.3 million) versus 28 billion yen ($230.9 million) last year, powered by high growth in mask inspection equipment, which should grow orders by 1.7 times to 5.8 billion yen ($47.8 million) as a result of market share gains over KLA-Tencor."
NuFlare's e-beam "order forecast is about a 17 percent fall to 20 billion yen ($164.9 million) this year," he said. NuFlare has a 55 percent market share in the sector. Customers include Intel, Samsung, DNP, TSMC, among others.
Another competitive and critical market is mask repair. Mask makers are sometimes hesitant to buy these systems, but they face a harsh reality: there is no "zero defect process" in the mask or fab flow, Rave's Lee said. "At 65-nm and below, you will have to use [repair technologies like] nanomachining," he said.
The mask-repair vendors -- Rave, SII NanoTechnology, Zeiss and others -- continue to battle each other in a small market. In total, vendors will ship some 5-to-8 tools per year. The average selling price for a tool is about $5 million.
Mask repair is fragmented and divided into three technology categories: e-beam, focused-ion beam (FIB) and nanomachining. There is no silver bullet in mask repair. Each technology plays a role in the mask shop.
Rave sells laser-based and nanomachining tools. At Semicon West, the company tipped its new product roadmap, by showing machines for the 45- and 32-nm nodes.
Rave's 45-nm solution, the nm450, enables repair for chrome, MoSI, MoSI/Hi-T, quartz, and other materials. It has an edge placement of 5-nm, a depth control of 3-nm and transmission rate of 100 percent, plus or minus 3 percent.
In 2008, Rave plans to ship an upgraded version of the nm450, dubbed the nm450plus. This system adds an additive repair feature to the overall unit. The company is also developing a 32-nm machine, called the nm320.