Analysis: Wafer step-change timing questioned

Making chips on bigger wafers might be more efficient, but some in the industry aren't convinced of the benefits.

The announcement that Intel, Samsung Electronics and TSMC are collaborating on a move to double the capacity of the silicon wafers they use has received a mixed reaction from the integrated-circuit industry.

The three companies claimed that moving from today's 300mm wafers to platters that measure 450mm in diameter will allow them to cut costs. The future wafers would carry twice as many chips as 300mm wafers.

A spokesman for Intel drew a comparison with the transition from 200mm wafers, pointing out that a 300mm wafer can yield 240 per cent as many chips as a 200mm wafer, with a net reduction of about 40 per cent for both energy and water, per chip.

"By the same token, gas and chemical consumption, and emissions, are also reduced," he said. "We have found that, in spite of greater complexity, it takes roughly the same number of technicians and engineers to run a 300mm production line, so the labour content per chip is cut by approximately half."

However, the makers of manufacturing equipment, none of which are represented in the group, have signalled caution over the move to 450mm within five years.

Hans Stork, group vice president and CTO of the silicon systems group of Applied Materials, cited studies by the suppliers' industry association: "SEMI analysis clearly points out that 450mm investment would not be appropriate at this time. Consistent with these findings and with our one-to-one interactions with customers we are focusing our resources on technology and productivity advancements in 300mm.

"R&D budget requirements - ours and those of the entire food chain - are large and growing, due to a broad range of fundamental technologies under investigation. In the economic reality of consumer electronics, the industry needs to be more judicious in the allocation of investments," added Stork, who claimed the development of larger wafers would "divert scarce funds across the industry away from necessary investments in new materials and other disruptive technologies [and] potentially slow down the pace of technology".

Maria Marced, president of TSMC Europe, claimed: "The drive of all our activities is for improving the profit. This is the area where the industry is suffering, in moving to the more advanced nodes. The only way to compensate the high cost is by focusing more and more for cost efficiency. That is where the move to 450mm is coming from."

A spokeswoman for AMSL, the largest maker of lithography equipment, said: "Resolution and overlay are the prime cost drivers for lithography, not wafer size. But ASML will respond to market needs. If the industry decides to introduce 450mm, ASML will be supporting its customers. However due to economics of the introduction for both IC companies and equipment suppliers, ASML does not expect an introduction to take place in the near future."

Jack Harding, president and CEO of eSilicon, said: "450mm will be like any quantum leap forward in technology. The end customers are served well and the suppliers who lack critical mass are jettisoned."

Those suppliers who cannot afford the move to 450mm will still be in the business, said Harding: "But it does mean they will be relegated to less cost-sensitive applications. I would not want to be in the foundry business knowing that I could only have the chips that are not cost-sensitive. I think the big three will move forward and they will leave everyone else in the dust."

Cheong-Woo Byun, senior vice president of the memory manufacturing operation centre at Samsung, disagrees. "The transition to 450mm wafers will benefit the entire ecosystem of the IC industry. Intel, Samsung, TSMC will work together with suppliers and other semiconductor manufacturers to actively develop 450mm capability," he said.

In the past, migration to the next larger wafer size has typically begun every 10 years after the last transition. For example, the industry began the transition to 300mm wafers in 2001, a decade after the initial 200mm fabs were introduced in 1991.

Intel, Samsung and TSMC believe that 2012 is an appropriate target to begin the 450mm transition. However, they say they will keep looking at the timeline, "to ensure industry-wide readiness".

The three companies have declared they will continue to work with International Sematech in coordinating industry efforts on 450mm wafer supply, standards setting and developing equipment test-beds.

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