National picked in chip project

A federal agency has selected National Semiconductor as the lead company in a three-year, $18.6 million project to improve microchip manufacturing.

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A federal government agency has selected National Semiconductor as the lead company in a three-year, $18.6 million project to improve microchip yields while lowering production costs.

The program's goal is to improve chip manufacturing so that lithography and etching equipment can compensate on the fly for problems that crop up as the chip wafer is processed. The technique for catching problems is called feed-forward control or FFC.

If the technology works, the result could be higher yields, or the number of chips per wafer that meet specifications. Higher yield means greater productivity and profit for semiconductor manufacturers.

The resulting improvements will likely be incremental. But, if feed-forward control produces even slightly better yields, "it could be a big thing" for the industry, said Keith Diefendorff, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources. "Small improvements in yields mean big bucks."

The process could become especially important as chips shrink. Improving yields becomes harder as the process size of microchips circuitry gets smaller and smaller. "It becomes harder and harder, and not just linearly, [but] exponentially," he said.

Gobi Padmanab, senior vice president for technology research and development at National Semiconductor, agreed.

"As the critical dimensions or geometries of circuit elements shrink to .18 microns and smaller, they too often are tinier than what can be consistently measured, process step by process step," he said.

National Semiconductor said it has had good results from its own trial of feed-forward control, which it has implemented in part of a wafer fabrication line at South Portland, Maine.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the Commerce Department, awarded the project to National Semiconductor, three semiconductor equipment companies, four universities, and several subcontractors.

Although National Semiconductor is the lead company, the results of the project will be available to the entire U.S. semiconductor industry, according to a statement.

Partners in the project include FSI International, KLA-Tencor, Lam Research, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

The feed-forward control research program is called the Advanced Technology Program for the Intelligent Control of the Semiconductor Patterning Process.

Diefendorff said that while $18.6 million over three years is a relatively small investment, it's a "very high-leverage kind of investment."

However, he added: "I don't think government funding is needed."