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Commentary: Next-generation chips a ways off

The real question is not whether chipmakers can break through physical limits but whether the technologies they use to do so will produce competitive products.

    By Klaus-Dieter Rinnen, Gartner Dataquest Analyst

    The real question is not whether semiconductor manufacturers can break through supposed physical limits but whether the technologies they can use to do so will produce competitive products.

    Physical limits themselves will probably not pose an insurmountable barrier to vendors' resourcefulness. The optical lithography manufacturing method originally faced a limit of 1 micron; then advances pushed the limit to 0.1 micron, and now it will go lower still.

    The industry constantly challenges its suppliers to develop new technologies to ensure that technology does not get in the way of commercial advances. In other words, it does not matter how a chip is made, or what technology is used to produce it, but whether its cost and functions will appeal to customers. The ultimate issue is the cost and functions delivered to the market.

    The achievements of the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) consortium attest to human ingenuity. They are an important step on the road to better products. They provide strong, basic R&D for what could eventually become a product. Nevertheless, other technologies, such as X-ray lithography, have reached the same milestones without resulting in real products.

    For vendors, this type of R&D work costs relatively little--after all, several major corporations share the burden--and provides choices for where mainstream semiconductors will head. In addition to EUV lithography, vendors are also working on electron projection as well as extending optical lithography, for which vendors have different options to consider.

    Which path the industry will take remains unclear because manufacturing costs will likely prove decisive, and we are far from the point when these can be determined. New production technologies can require substantial changes to the manufacturing infrastructure. Other important questions include which technology offers the greatest room for improvements and how quickly a new technology can be ramped up to full production.

    See news story:
    Coalition shows off process for faster chips

    The consortium's member companies are challenging the EUV effort for a first beta or preproduction unit in 2003 and a first production unit in 2005. To achieve this, vendors must undertake enormous investments. It may cost $1 billion to build and support the first production tool in 2005. At the same time, the same companies (as well as others around the globe) are hedging their bets by pushing the development efforts for 157 nanometer wavelength vacuum ultraviolet lithography and for further extensions for incumbent lithography technologies.

    For chip vendors, these moves will give them more choices to produce the most competitive products. For equipment and materials vendors, however, supporting all these different development efforts could prove that much more burdensome, yet they do not really have a choice if they want to stay competitive.

    (For related commentary on the phenomenal demand for chip designers, see TechRepublic.com-- free registration required.)

    Entire contents, Copyright © 2001 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.