SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- After years of stability--and little excitement--the photomask equipment market appears to be undergoing dramatic changes on a number of fronts that could shakeup the entire landscape of this tool segment.
In one development that could alter the business, Applied Materials Inc.--the world's leading supplier of mask-writing tools by way of its acquisition of Etec Systems Inc. last year--has been late in shipping a next-generation, electron-beam photomask tool. The delay, according to industry sources, has opened the door of opportunity for Applied's e-beam rivals, such as JEOL, Hitachi, Leica, and Toshiba.
But in what could really turn the market upside down, Sweden's Micronic Laser Systems AB is readying a new class of laser-based pattern generation tools, which the company says will combine the high-resolution capabilities of e-beam with the throughput advantages of an optical-scanning pattern generator.
Officials from Micronic claim this tool could handle all of the production requirements in a photomask shop--including most critical dimensions to--thereby eliminating the need for an e-beam system. Typically, photomask shops use a mix-and-match approach to produce reticles. E-beam tools, with lower throughput, are usually used for the finest lines, while pattern generators handle most mask layers.
Applied itself has announced a similar, high-throughput pattern generator tool, but the company is quick to point out that this product will work in a "mix-and-match" mode with e-beams, most notably its own systems.
In any event, the market potential is huge for the new breed of high-throughput mask writing tools from both Applied and Micronic, said analyst Timothy M. Arcuri, who tracks the chip-equipment business for Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown in San Francisco.
"The Holy Grail in mask making is to combine the capabilities of an e-beam and pattern generator," Arcuri said. "Whoever can get their product out the fastest could capture the mask making market," he added.
But slower e-beam tools aren't dead--yet. The new, high-throughput pattern generators are still unproven and are behind in terms of high-resolution capabilities, according to analysts.
Still, these new tools pose a major threat for all e-beam tool suppliers, especially market leader Applied Materials. In January of 2000, Applied moved into the e-beam segment by acquiring Etec in a stock-swap deal (see Jan. 12, 2000, story). Hayward, Calif.-based Etec held a huge market share in photomask tools and supplied the widely used Mebes series of direct-write mask writers.
But for some time, Etec had been losing ground in terms of market share to its rivals, most notably Toshiba Corp., according to industry analysts. Etec's main product has been the Mebes 5500, a tool aimed at development of photomasks for 180-nm (0.18-micron) and 130-nm (0.13-micron) chip processing technologies.
In response to growing competition, Applied's Etec unit has developed a new e-beam tool. Reportedly called the "Exaro," the new direct-write system enables development of masks down to the 70-nm (0.07-micron) process technology node, according to sources.
Applied was originally supposed to ship Exaro by now. But some competitors believe that the tool will not be shipped as a production system until early- to mid-2002.
Getting back on track
But Applied executives said the company has shipped an early prototype of the e-beam system to one customer for evaluation. The response has been positive, according to Joseph R. Bronson, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Applied. During a presentation at Semicon West last week, Bronson told analysts that the system is now scheduled to be introduced later this year.
"I think the worst is over for us in terms of the e-beam part of the business," Bronson said, during the Semicon West briefing.
In fact, when Applied acquired Etec, it was aware of the problems and delays in e-beam system development, said James C. Morgan, chairman and CEO of the Santa Clara-based equipment giant. "That gave us an opportunity to go in and fix it," he said. "The problem was with the e-beam, but not the laser segment," he said during a press briefing last week. Applied would not discuss the unannounced e-beam tool.
But for now, the market for reticle-writing systems is extremely depressed. "The number of machines shipped on a global basis could be counted on one hand," Bronson said.
According to market estimates from VLSI Research Inc., total revenues for photomask exposure equipment was $401.4 million last year, with Applied holding a 40% share, followed by Micronic with 20% and Toshiba with 10% of the sales. But sales of mask tools--along with the reticle business--have been hit hard in this downturn.
Analysts noted that few chip companies want to move new IC designs to prototype production when mask sets are now costing nearly a quarter-million dollars or more. Photomask costs have exploded as chip makers try to leverage subwavelength lithography and mask elements--such as phase shifting--to push 248-nm exposure systems to the 0.13-micron and below technology nodes.
But even in a slow market, Applied Materials' shipment delays should be a concern for the tool giant. "Clearly, Applied has fallen behind in the e-beam market," Arcuri said. "But I think their next-generation tool will ship in the next quarter or two," he said.
Competitors rush in
This, in turn, has also opened the door for rivals to enter photomask shops. "In the past, we've had a hard time making inroads in the U.S.," said Peter Genovese, national sales manager for the U.S. subsidiary of Japanese e-beam giant JEOL, which is called JEOL USA Inc., in Peabody, Mass. "But we're beginning to see some new opportunities here," Genovese said.
For example, DuPont Photomasks Inc. (DPI) has reportedly been a major user of Applied's Mebes line of tools. But late last year, DPI in Round Rock, Tex., announced a deal with JEOL. Under the terms, JEOL is installing its JBX-9000MV electron-beam tool in the DPI Reticle Technology Center (RTC). The center is an advanced photomask R&D facility operated by DPI and joint-venture partners Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Motorola Inc. The new system will anchor development of photomasks with critical dimensions of 0.13 micron and below.
DPI also has a deal with perhaps the "spoiler" in the e-beam business--Micronic of Täby, Sweden. Last October, DPI placed orders for Micronic's existing Omega6500 line of pattern generators. It is also believed to be the first company to order Micronic's so-called Sigma7100, which will be delivered to DPI by year's end.
Initially, DPI will use the tools from Micronic and JEOL in a mix-and-match production environment to develop masks at the 130-nm node. But DPI reportedly has other big plans for the Sigma7100 as well. The Sigma7100 uses a new wavelength-independent photomask writing system, called Spatial Light Modulator (SLM) technology.
SLM technology could revolutionize laser-based pattern generators, according to Micronic. Using an array of "micromirrors" to provide high resolution and massive parallel exposure, this new pattern generator has many architectural similarities to the modern wafer stepper, said Jorge Freyer, president of Micronic's U.S. subsidiary, based in Mountain View, Calif.
The technology combines the resolution of an e-beam and the throughput of a pattern generation system. Geared for the 130-nm node and below, the Sigma7100 has a throughput of one mask for every two to four hours. In comparison, a traditional e-beam handles one mask every 20-40 hours, the company claimed.
"The production of reticles are taking too long and are too expensive with direct-write e-beams," Freyer said in an interview at last week's Semicon West show in San Francisco.
"Our first goal with the Sigma7100 is to dominate the pattern generation business," Freyer said. "But over time, we believe our real competition with this tool will be against the e-beam vendors," he added.
The company hopes to take this concept a step further as a result of a recent alliance with ASM Lithography of the Netherlands. In June, Micronic and ASML announced plans to set up an alliance for joint development of new exposure tools, which will include direct-write systems for rapid turnaround of IC designs and small-volume production runs. ASML said it will make an interest free convertible loan to Micronic totaling 320 million kronor ($30.2 million) as part of the alliance (see June 20 story).
"We want to develop a very fast reticle writer," Fryer said.
Not to be outdone, Applied rolled out a competitive pattern generator tool at last week's Semicon West show. The tool, called the Alta 4000, features a new 257-nm DUV (deep ultraviolet) technology and a multi-beam raster scanned laser architecture.
The system is a high-throughput tool for use in generating masks at the 130-nm node and below, said Michael White, senior product manager for Applied's Etec unit.
But Applied is playing both sides of the fence in the market. The Alta 4000 competes against e-beam tools from JOEL, Toshiba, and others, according to White.
On the other hand, Applied is pushing the Alta 4000 in a mix-and-match approach with its own e-beam tools in mask shops, the company added.