SAN FRANCISCOCanon Inc. has for years watched its share of the global market for microlithography equipment decay. Now, according to a prominent semiconductor capital equipment analyst, Canon's seventh attempt to penetrate the argon fluoride (ArF) 193-nm lithography market has apparently failed and the company's "great white hope" rests with an undisclosed relationship with nano-imprint lithography vendor Molecular Imprints Inc. (MII).
"There is a partnership agreement between the two companies, which is considered to be very important," said G. Dan Hutcheson, CEO of market research firm VLSI Research Inc., in an interview with EE Times Wednesday (March 10). Hutcheson declined to divulge details about the nature of the agreement, which has not been publicly acknowledged by either Canon or MII. But he said the two companies have been working together for at least a year.
Hutcheson said it is possible that Canon could acquire MII, but added that such a deal is pure speculation. "Molecular Imprints is still burning cash," he said. "At some point, they either become have to become profitable or someone is going to acquire them."
A spokesperson for MII (Austin, Texas) would neither confirm nor deny that the company has a working agreement with Canon. Spokespersons for Canon (Tokyo) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last week, in an issue of VLSI's newsletter, The Chip Insider, Hutcheson said Canon laid low at the recent SPIE Advanced Lithography conference and that "it has become more clear" that the company's seventh attempt to penetrate the 193-nm lithography market has failed. Hutcheson wrote that Canon, which has abandoned efforts to build a next-generation extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography system, could gain "a clear point of differentiation" through working with MII.
Once among the leaders in semiconductor lithography, Canon saw its market share slip to just over 11 percent by 2008, the last year for which numbers are available, according to Gartner Inc.
By last fall, according to sources, Canon was telling customers it would no longer develop immersion or dry 193-nm systems. The company appears to have abandoned efforts to develop EUV or maskless lithography technology, focusing instead on develop of its older i-line and 248-nm lithography lines for use in LCD and mix-and-match chip production.
Close partnership withor acquisition ofMII would put Canon on a different path from ASML Holding NV of the Netherlands and Nikon Corp. of Japan, ranked first and second, respectively, in semiconductor lithography revenue. "For Canon, it's a Hail Mary pass," Hutcheson said, adding that Canon has "nothing to lose."