Semicon: Bring a chemist and your wallet

Semicon West 2003, the largest trade show in the United States for semiconductor equipment makers, is a festival of arcane and very expensive gizmos.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--The WPS-SQFFH-P Series Wet Process System is ideal for removing unwanted chemicals from silicon wafers, but you have to be careful how you use it.

"I couldn't put hydrofluoric acid in there because that bath is quartz," said Chris Schmitz, vice president of engineering at Wafer Process, pointing to one of the basins on the machine.

Instead, the $175,000 unit as configured--on display here this week at Semicon West 2003, the largest trade show in the United States for semiconductor equipment makers--is used to cleanse (or etch) wafers with deionized water and hydrogen peroxide. Sixty etching stations like this might be installed in a single fabrication facility, or fab, Schmitz added.

When it comes to chipmaking, cost and complexity are part of the landscape. Because of the relentless progress the industry has made, chip designers are now designing devices containing nearly 500 million transistors, each measuring only a few billionths of a meter. Accomplishing this task requires lasers, precise chemical formulas, robots and factories with air that's purer than that found in operating rooms.

A fab can cost more than $3 billion to build and contain over 500 total pieces of equipment specifically tweaked to perform more than 600 processing steps, according to Thomas Sonderman, director of manufacturing and technology at Advanced Micro Devices.

The processing steps, moreover, change constantly. Under AMD's Automated Precision Manufacturing program, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company subtly changes the design of its transistors every quarter. To counter "positional effects," the phenomenon in which different geographic regions of a wafer produce different numbers of workable wafers, AMD varies how heat and light affect subsegments of the wafer.

"You want to get as much material through the fab as quickly as possible," Sonderman said.

Making chips is sort of like spin art: Chemicals are sprayed on a disk, and then scraped away until the desired pattern emerges. The details, however, are quite tricky.

The Leica APECS 3020, for instance, measures the thickness of layers on a wafer, data that then allows engineers to predict the properties of the chips that will be cut out of it, according to company representative John Whitley. The machine, which looks like a cafeteria cappuccino maker, costs more than $1 million.

"And worth every penny," he added. Among the internal components is a $50,000 camera.

Ultratech Stepper, meanwhile, displayed the Saturn Spectrum 300e. The machine precisely "draws" the bumps, the small metallic connectors on the outside of chips, by removing photo-resistant materials from around embedded metal in a wafer with a laser. It's the same principle used in film developing.

The machine costs around $3 million, a company representative said. A lithography system that develops the lines that become circuits on a chip might cost $18 million.

Bad vibrations
Vibrations, or the motion of internal robots, however, can throw off calibration of a lithography machine. Hence, manufacturers place them on things like Technical Manufacturing's Electro Damp II, a vibration-dampening table that sells for around $40,000, according to TMC's Bob Case.

Then there's the Fluidix Steam Powered DI Heater from ICD/Heateflex. "It's basically a $100,000 water heater," company representative Jorge Ramirez said. Or take the $75,000 furnaces from MRL Industries, which can bake wafers at temperatures ranging from 800 to 1,300 degrees Celsius.

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Although many semiconductor equipment companies in the market grew out of Silicon Valley, many others have come from noncomputer industries. The company Kurt J. Lesker ("vacuum science is our business") started out as a pump and vacuum distributor in 1950s in Pittsburgh, said Frank Hernandez, western regional sales manager.

Now it makes sputtering chambers, hermetically sealed globes in which metal vapors are sprayed onto silicon wafers. Customers for its $100,000 to $300,000 chambers include U.C. Berkeley and Stanford.

Other nontech companies at the convention include valve makers, ball bearing distributors, chemical conglomerates and spring designers.

The great debate
Semicon this year also served as a forum for the increasingly heated competition between IBM and Intel. Although it doesn't manufacture nearly the same number of chips as Intel, IBM is actively licensing its technology and manufacturing expertise to competitors Sony and AMD, a move giving it increasing clout.

Big Blue is promoting an effort among chip-equipment makers to adhere to standards, which could reduce the costs involved in building fabs. IBM also emerged as a proponent of "immersion lithography." In immersion lithography, circuit-drawing lasers would be focused through purified water, a process that better focuses the light and leads to finer circuits.

Sunlin Chou, senior vice president of technology and manufacturing at Intel, said that immersion at best is an interim fix. The real problem facing the industry is that equipment makers aren't working hard enough to keep up with chipmakers' demands.

"The concern we have is that the industry has not acted with sufficient urgency," he said. "Without new inventions, the whole industry will slow down."

Demand, demand
Despite several years in the doldrums, the equipment market is showing signs of life. Gartner predicted that equipment sales will reach $29.9 billion in 2003, an increase of 7.9 percent from $27.7 billion the previous year. The industry has declined for two years.

Ross Dove, CEO of IT auctioneer DoveBid, noted that recent auctions of fab equipment have involved equipment that's being sold as part of an upgrade, not a going-out-of-business sale. Depending on the quality, the equipment out of a single fab might fetch $70 million.

"There's not as much liquidation. Sixty percent of what we are selling is going cross-border, leaving here or Japan and going to Asia," he said. "Semiconductor is hot now. We're getting great prices."

The same can't be said of the server and networking business. DoveBid recently liquidated the IT assets of Enron. The auction garnered around $25 million.