Industry Ready for 450mm Wafers, Exec Says

The next big step in chip manufacturing will be the industry's move from 300mm wafers to 450mm wafers, which should help chip makers improve the performance of their products while keeping costs down.

Chip makers Intel, Samsung Electronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. announced Monday that they will collaborate to move chip manufacturing onto 450mm silicon wafers, with pilot tests to start in 2012. Some other companies are resisting the move, however, because the switch will require the industry to invest billions of dollars, and some companies say they are content with manufacturing on the current 300mm wafers.

Lose the resistance, because the time for change has come, said Joe Draina, associate director of International Sematech Manufacturing Initiative, in an interview conducted before Monday's announcement. The last big change in wafer size was in the 1990s, and the investments are needed to make up lost ground on productivity and profitability, he argued.

ISMI is a subsidiary of Sematech, an industry association that represents the industry's biggest semiconductor manufacturers. It has started a program that researches productivity improvements and cost effectiveness that should come from the switch to 450mm wafers.

Draina talked with the IDG News Service about the industry's move to the 450mm wafer size. Following is an edited transcript.

Does Sematech have any specific timeline to move chip manufacturing onto 450mm silicon wafers?

If you look at the ITRS [International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors] roadmap they look at 2012...but we recognize that the market conditions are going to dictate what the timing is for all that.

How does wafer size and the size of features on a chip relate to each other?

As we get down to 22-nanometers and smaller, the complexities of delivering that particular device ... are problematic with cost and productivity at 300mm. Once we get down to those kinds of devices, it is highly desirable to [move to] the next wafer size.

When you talk about productivity gains with 450mm wafers, what numbers are we looking at?

When you look at the ... historic productivity curve ... we have calculated that there are hundreds of millions of dollars of productivity opportunity that we've missed out on. If you look out from 2012 to 2018 or something like that, it can be hundreds of millions of dollars. If you look out 15 years past 2012, if we ... stay at 300mm you are talking of billions of dollars of lost productivity.

Some people may say "so what, you're still making profits." Yeah... but you're not making as much. That means less money that you can put back into research and development. Your whole engine for technology pace begins to slow down. That affects all other electronic devices that we have come to know well.

So the 45-nm manufacturing process on a 300mm wafer doesn't have the right cost benefits?

I'm not quite saying that. It depends on a company's business model -- what kind of mix they are running in the factory. There are lots of variables. As we start to get to those tight, smaller geometries -- 22-nm and below -- it starts to become more and more attractive and desirable to be out of 300mm and on to a 450mm wafer. The scaling...required as we get down to those sizes are beginning to get more and more costly. A larger wafer size would counter effect that.

Can you talk about investments? Some estimate that we'll need investments worth billions of dollars in fabs for 450mm wafers.

We wouldn't expect it to be that much. It's not inexpensive. You get a pretty wide spread of speculation numbers.

How does the industry work together to transition to 450mm wafers?

The industry won't be ready to build a factory until all of the suppliers are in alignment. One of the components of the [450mm wafer program at ISMI] ... is to start communication with the suppliers in understanding their 450mm roadmaps, what the roadblocks are for when they scale up. We're working toward getting our arms around the supplier base ... to understand their readiness and what the issues are and to selectively go after or work with the suppliers.

What issues does the semiconductor industry face in the move to 450mm wafers?

The question as we go forward with equipment suppliers ... is when they scale up to 450mm, what [are] their performance expectations for throughput? There are many supplier areas that will talk in terms of an equivalence [of 300mm and 450mm]. No problem. And there are some areas of concerns, and we talk through the technical points of those. We try to work together on solutions.

Can you talk about those concerns?

It's not as simple as turning up a motor speed. If you have a 450mm wafer, first order, you're going to take longer to scan more area. As you think through the technology or the concept of how these tools process their wafers, then you get into discussions with the suppliers about, "Well, what can you do to speed it up?" Then you start to get very deep into the technology of what they need to do, and sometimes they need to be innovative.

Will there be clashes in creating standards for the 450mm wafer?

Another big the factory integration, factory automation. We're working toward guidelines and standardization of the wafer carriers, wafer shippers and certainly the wafer itself. We're setting out to evaluate the guidelines and the standard that will be proposed for interoperability.