Semi Heavies Push Fabs to Upsize Wafers

A trio of semiconductor companies have banded together in a joint effort to push the industry into transitioning to a larger, 450mm-sized wafer by 2012. Led by Intel, Samsung and TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company), the idea is to line up the industry so that all of the required components and manufacturing needs are developed in time to benefit from the larger design.

The intended benefit: Lowering the production cost of a computer chip.

Size Matters

“If you’ve seen the [standard industry] photos, a wafer is the large circular object about the size of an old LP record that somebody in a clean suit in a clean manufacturing room is holding up for everyone’s admiration,” Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

Basically, a wafer is a slice of semiconductor material, usually made with silicon, that’s formed in a consistent crystalline process that provides the basis for microprocessors. The current industry standard is a 300mm wafer, and the move from 300mm to 450mm essentially jumps the diameter from about 12 inches to about 18 inches. The transition would more than double the amount of microprocessors that can be manufactured from a single wafer.

Historically Speaking

By increasing the size of the wafer and increasing the number of chips that can be produced from each, the semiconductor industry has been able to keep chip prices low by generating better and better economies of scale.

“There is a long history of innovation and problem-solving in our industry that has delivered wafer transitions resulting in lower costs per area of silicon processed and overall industry growth,” noted Bob Bruck, vice president and general manager of technology manufacturing engineering in Intel’s technology and manufacturing group.

“We, along with Samsung and TSMC, agree that the transition to 450mm wafers will follow the same pattern of delivering increased value to our customers,” he added.

In the past, industry migration to the next larger wafer size traditionally began every 10 years after the last transition, Intel said, noting that the transition to 300mm wafers started in 2001, a decade after the initial 200mm manufacturing facilities, which are also known as “fabs,” were introduced in 1991.

Keeping in line with the historical pace of growth, Intel, Samsung and TSMC agree that 2012 is an appropriate target to begin the 450mm transition.

Rounding Up the Industry

Intel, Samsung and TSMC believe that the semiconductor industry can improve its return on investment and reduce 450mm research and development costs by applying aligned standards, rationalizing changes from 300mm infrastructure and automation, and working toward a common time line. The companies also say that a cooperative approach will help minimize risk and transition costs.

“The transition to 450mm wafers will benefit the entire ecosystem of the [integrated circuit] industry, and Intel, Samsung TSMC will work together with suppliers and other semiconductor manufacturers to actively develop 450mm capability,” noted Cheong-Woo Byun, senior vice president of the Memory Manufacturing Operation Center for Samsung Electronics.

While there are cost benefits to increasing the size of the wafer, it’s not all fun and games.

“There are huge technical challenges associated with making wafers that are 450mm in diameter,” Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight 64, told TechNewsWorld.

“One of the biggest ones is that when you’re processing wafers, especially from an optics standpoint, you’re required to maintain the distance between the wafer and the device that’s transferring the features to the wafer with an incredibly small tolerance. Think about having a plate or surface that’s 18 inches across and having it all be exactly level … it’s very hard,” he explained.

Brookwood also said that manufacturers who build the equipment needed to manufacture wafers have fewer customers in the industry than they did in years past. Those manufacturers, then, have fewer customers to which to sell new 450mm equipment.

“If the business model doesn’t work for those guys, that could be an interesting conflict in the industry,” Brookwood noted.

In This Together

Some reports estimate the cost to move to a 450mm manufacturing process could run into the billions of dollars. While Intel, Samsung and TSMC are industry heavyweights, they can’t exactly just go it alone and let everyone else follow along — though it’s also not just cost that’s at issue.

“Getting the whole industry on board — or getting multiple foundry players like Samsung and TSMC — very often has to do with companies that share manufacturing processes. In some cases, they may farm out work to Intel, for example, and vice versa, so it becomes really critical for companies that are working together to use the exact same manufacturing processes,” King explained.

“If Intel is on the 450mm plan, it becomes difficult or impossible to partner with companies that are using different types of technology. I expect that this will spark other foundry players to start moving more quickly to try to meet the 2012 goal,” he added.

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