SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It was a triple-whammy for lithographers at the SPIE Advanced Lithography conference here last week, as the industry continues to be plagued by an R&D gap, technology delays, and, of course, the lousy economy.
Experts at SPIE warned about an alarming R&D funding shortfall for the various next-generation lithography (NGL) technologies--extreme ultraviolet (EUV), maskless and nano-imprint--creating more fear, uncertainty and doubt about the insertion of these schemes for mass IC production.
Based on the troubling trends, NGL needs more funding or a large ''stimulus package,'' warned Milind Weling, engineering director of signoff and silicon optimization for Cadence Design Systems Inc.
Some technologies like EUV remain delayed or on the ropes, leaving leading-edge chip makers to resort to an assortment of complex, costly and unpopular double-patterning schemes. And not only were there the usual and nagging issues with double patterning and NGLs, but the current and steep IC recession turned SPIE into gloomy event.
Business is simply terrible for the lithography and fab tool communities, causing some concern among analysts about the condition of the industry. Looking at the glass half full, the downturn could slow the roadmaps of various IC makers, giving the various NGL technologies time to develop and play catch-up with their promised timetables.
On the other hand, R&D budgets, and possibly key staffers, are being cut. During the downturn, some wonder if will there be enough R&D dollars to go around in order to finish a raft of incomplete NGL technologies.
Others also wonder which fab tool companies will survive the downturn. ASML, Canon and Nikon will likely survive, but many of the small, innovative NGL startups could fall by the wayside.
And in the short term, orders are drying up for lithography vendors. Worldwide lithography shipments are expected to drop from 544 systems in 2007, to 323 in 2008, to 184 in 2009, according to Nikon Corp., citing data from Gartner Inc.
Most believe the figure is too high for 2009, saying the industry is seeing the worst downturn in the history of semiconductor equipment. One industry source believes that lithography shipments could fall as low as 80 or so units in 2009, a staggering drop over 2008.
Some vendors are praying for a second-half rebound, but others aren't so sure. Frankly, the entire fab tool community is still ''looking for the bottom'' of the current downturn, said Risto Puhakka, president of VLSI Research Inc.
Regarding a common theme in lithography, Puhakka said there's an ongoing trend in the business: It's the word ''tomorrow.'' Vendors continue to make various claims about NGL, but they say the technology isn't ready today and promise to deliver ''tomorrow,'' he said. ''It's always tomorrow,'' he added.