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The Future Is Flexible and Printed

Friday, March 4th, 2016

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By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor

Automotive electronics, the Internet of Things, wearable gadgets, and other emerging chip markets are also expected to provide growth for flexible electronics, which often share manufacturing processes and materials with semiconductors.

Such applications were the talk of this week’s 2016FLEX Conference & Exhibition in Monterey, Calif. Printed and hybrid electronics were also on offer in the technical presentations and the compact exhibition area on the mezzanine level of the Monterey Marriott, where the conference was held while the Monterey Conference Center across Del Monte Avenue undergoes a year-long reconstruction project.

The Monterey Marriott and the Monterey Conference Center. (Credit: Jeff Dorsch)

Autonomous vehicles, connected cars, and the IoT are driving demand and innovation in flexible, hybrid, and printed electronics, according to Harry Zervos, principal analyst and business development manager for North America at IDTechEx, the market research, business intelligence, consulting, and events firm.

These new forms provide the capability to “add electronics to more and more mundane things,” he noted.

IDTechEx estimates the printed, flexible, and organic electronics market was worth a total of $24.5 billion in 2015. Organic light-emitting diode displays accounted for the lion’s share, at $15.3 billion. While OLEDs typically are not printed electronics, they stand to lead to flexible displays in the future, according to IDTechEx.

Sensors, mostly glucose test strips, represented $6.6 billion in revenue last year, while conductive inks provided $2.3 billion during 2015.

The market research firm forecasts printed electronics will increase from $8.8 billion in 2015 to $14.9 billion in 2025. Products made on flexible substrates are projected to grow from $6.4 billion last year to $23.5 billion in the next decade.

Market researchers have predicted “billions of sensors” will be sold in the next few years, including sensors for smartphones, Zervos said.  Smartphones will be “becoming flexible, more robust, foldable,” he added.

He is looking ahead to a time of flexible sensors and perhaps flexible microelectromechanical system devices to enable those flexible phones.

Flexible, hybrid, and printed electronics will provide “innovation in form factors, allowing designers to come up with new ideas on what devices could look like,” Zervos said in an interview. Such innovation will lead to “more excitement, higher profit margins,” he added.

This will depend on “an interoperable ecosystem” between the mature semiconductor industry and the nascent flexible electronics industry, Zervos said.

Molex was among the exhibitors at this week’s conference. The company was acquired in late 2013 for $7.2 billion by Koch Industries. Nearly a year ago, Molex acquired certain assets of Silogie, a supplier of flexible and printed electronics for consumer goods, industrial, lighting, medical, and military applications.

During the technical program on Wednesday afternoon, John Heitzinger — Molex’s general manager of printed electronics — described products the company has developed for the structural health monitoring of advanced ammunition, building monitoring systems, and physiological monitoring, the last on behalf of the U.S. Air Force. In working on functionalized carbon nanotubes for detecting and sensing lactate, Molex collaborated with American Semiconductor, Brewer Science, and Northeastern University, he said.

Neil Morrison of Applied Materials WEB Coating presented Wednesday morning on “’Packaging’ of Moisture Sensitive Materials Used in New Form Factor Display Products.” He is manager of research and development in Energy & Environmental Solutions for the Applied Materials unit, based in Alzenau, Germany.

Applied has a 40-year history is supplying chemical vapor deposition equipment for semiconductor manufacturing, he noted, and now offers plasma-enhanced CVD for displays and roll-to-roll CVD for advanced flexible electronics.

For quantum dots and wearables, “you need a barrier solution,” especially multilayer barrier stacks, Morrison said.

He recommended PECVD for manufacturing with silicon nitride, and critical roll-to-roll CVD requirements for high-performance barrier films.

For high-volume manufacturing of roll-to-roll barriers, “process monitoring and control is key,” Morrison said.

Flexible, hybrid, and printed electronics are clearly becoming a big and growing market. How companies take advantage of this market opportunity may be critical to their future.

Slowdown in Equipment Business Hits Applied’s Quarterly Results

Friday, February 19th, 2016

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By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor

Applied Materials reported net income of $286 million on revenue of $2.257 billion for the fiscal first quarter ended January 31, compared with net income of $348 million on revenue of $2.359 billion in the same quarter of a year ago.  Orders in Q1 were $2.275 billion, flat with $2.273 billion a year earlier.

Applied said foundry customers accounted for 38 percent of orders in the first quarter of fiscal 2016, while DRAM manufacturers represented 29 percent, flash memory suppliers 22 percent, and logic/others 11 percent. One year ago, orders were evenly split between foundry and DRAM customers, at 34 percent for each segment.

The 4 percent reduction in Q1 revenue, year over year, reflects the current softness in the semiconductor equipment business. SEMI’s book-to-bill ratio for North American equipment suppliers has been below parity for the last three months, with a preliminary figure of 0.99 in January, subject to revision.

“As the market moves into the sweet spot for Applied’s materials engineering technology, we see strong demand for our semiconductor, display and service businesses,” Gary Dickerson, Applied’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We are maintaining a positive outlook for 2016 as our customers make strategic, inflection-driven investments that play to our strengths.”

Dickerson told analysts Wednesday, “We are growing beyond semiconductor.” Applied’s display business is being driven by the industry’s move to organic light-emitting diode displays, he said.

An OLED fabrication facility represents three times the potential spending on equipment for an amorphous silicon liquid crystal display plant, according to Dickerson. “I am confident about our growth,” he said. The company’s etch and chemical vapor deposition businesses are “making significant gains,” the CEO added.

While there are “global economic risks” in 2016, similar to those in 2015, 10-nanometer chips and 3D NAND flash memory devices are creating demand for production equipment, along with “increased spending in China” by domestic and foreign companies, Dickerson said. “There is a fierce battle for leadership in these new device categories,” he commented.

Capital spending at the silicon foundries in 2016 will be at “levels more or less the same as last year,” Dickerson added. Their capital expenditures for 10nm ICs is expected to pick up in the second half of calendar 2016, he predicted.

NAND flash investment will be up 25 percent from 2015, particularly for 3D NAND, Dickerson said. The “heavy DRAM investment” of 2015 will cool off this year, falling about 20 percent in 2016, he added.  Logic spending will be “relatively flat, year over year,” he said.

Bob Halliday, the company’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, forecast net income in the fiscal second quarter would be in the range of 30 to 34 cents per share, compared with 25 cents per share in Q1 and 28 cents per share in the first quarter of fiscal 2015. Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S said analysts were expecting an average of 26 cents per share for Q2.

Worldwide spending on wafer fabrication equipment will be flat in 2016, compared with 2015, Halliday said. “We expect our share to increase,” he added.

The Applied Global Services business is in its third year of growth and display is in its fourth year of growth, the CFO noted.

China Bolsters its IC Gear Business with Mattson Acquisition

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor

Mattson Technology agreed this month to be acquired by Beijing E-Town Dragon Semiconductor Industry Investment Center, a limited partnership in China, for about $300 million in cash. The deal marks one of the first signs that the “Made in China 2025” policy will include targeting semiconductor production equipment as an element in bolstering the domestic chip business in the People’s Republic of China.

Brad Mattson, CEO

Mattson supplies dry strip, etch, millisecond anneal, and rapid thermal processing equipment for semiconductor manufacturing. The company was founded in 1988 by Brad Mattson, who earlier established Novellus Systems, acquired by Lam Research in 2012.

Mattson served as the company’s chief executive officer until 2001, and was its vice chairman until 2002. He later became a partner at VantagePoint Capital Partners and now serves as the CEO of Siva Power, a solar startup originally known as Solexant.

In 2014, Mattson Technology posted net income of $9.88 million on revenue of $178.4 million, after being unprofitable for the previous four years. Samsung Electronics accounted for about 61 percent of net revenue last year; Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing were its leading customers in 2013.

China represented nearly 10 percent of Mattson’s revenue in 2014, a percentage that may rise once the acquisition transaction is completed in early 2016, pending shareholder and regulatory approval.

Mattson Technology has remained profitable this year, reporting net income of more than $2 million on revenue of $38.9 million for the third quarter ending September 27, compared with net income of $2.6 million on revenue of $43.3 million for the same quarter of 2014.

For the first nine months of 2015, the company posted net income of $10.9 million on revenue of $140.5 million, compared with net income of $4.9 million on revenue of $123.7 million in the like period of 2014.

In the dry strip market, Mattson competes with Lam Research and PSK. Its principal competitors in thermal annealing are Applied Materials, Dainippon Screen Manufacturing, and Ultratech. Etch rivals are Applied, Lam, and Tokyo Electron, according to Mattson’s 10-K annual report for 2014.

G. Dan Hutcheson, VLSI Research Inc.

“The Chinese are trying to develop their own semiconductor equipment business,” said G. Dan Hutcheson, chairman and CEO of VLSIresearch. Buying a company like Mattson is “a great way to start,” he added.

Recalling the 1980s, Hutcheson commented, “Mattson was one of the really go-go companies at the time.” There were 10 to 20 vendors in every segment, he recalled. With industry consolidation of equipment suppliers, “it’s become harder for companies like that,” he said. “You almost have to be a billion-dollar company” to stand out in the market these days, Hutcheson added.

Fusen Chen, Mattson’s president and CEO, “has been a shot in the arm, turning it around,” Hutcheson said about the company. “It’s hard to have differentiation from Applied and Lam.”

Noting the dominance of Samsung and TSMC among Mattson’s customer base, Hutcheson said, “There’s only three customers” – those two chipmakers and Intel. “Those guys can develop their own technology,” he added.

Having Mattson as an equipment supplier helps “keep the competition honest,” Hutcheson noted.

The veteran industry observer said such a deal is “good for the Chinese.” The country aspires to become a world leader in computers, networks and telecommunications, without having to import most of the semiconductors it needs. “You can’t do that without semiconductors,” Hutcheson added.

The fabless semiconductor business in China has grown tremendously in this decade. “No one’s graduating designers like China is,” Hutcheson said. “They get their PhDs in the U.S., their visas expire, and we tell them, ‘go back home.’”

China is following the example of South Korea and Taiwan in building up an electronics industry with a comprehensive supply chain, although not all Asian countries have done well in fostering semiconductor equipment vendors, according to Hutcheson.

“It’s a real classical error” to assume that semiconductor production equipment is merely hardware that is easy to design and manufacture, Hutcheson commented. “It’s not just stuff made in a machine shop,” he added, noting the need for extensive software in IC gear.

At its size, “Mattson is one of the last companies you can buy,” Hutcheson concluded.

Got MEMS? Get In Touch With memsstar For Production Equipment

Friday, July 17th, 2015

By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor

As you might guess from the company’s name, memsstar is involved in microelectromechanical system (MEMS) devices. The company offers manufacturing equipment for “MEMS-specific production,” says CEO Tony McKie.

Based in Livingston, Scotland, memsstar wants to help in making “MEMS on top of silicon,” he adds.

“There are no such things as standard MEMS,” McKie notes. “MEMS are becoming more complicated.”

While most people are familiar with the MEMS devices in smartphones, like accelerometers and pressure sensors, the Internet of Things will call for different kinds of MEMS and other products, according to McKie. “You need hardware to do that,” he says of IoT. “The rest is filled by software.”

McKie estimates the worldwide market for MEMS production equipment is currently worth about $10 million to $15 million a year. “It’s a growing market,” he says. IoT and other new technologies call for “more and more things that are not CMOS-related,” he adds. Producing new types of MEMS will likely see the startup of more 200-millimeter wafer fabrication facilities, according to McKie.

The primary competitor of memsstar is the SPTS Technologies subsidiary of Orbotech, McKie says.

The company is also involved in refurbishing and remanufacturing deposition and etch equipment from such vendors as Applied Materials, Lam Research, and Novellus Systems (now part of Lam), while providing spare parts for those systems.

Founded in 2003 as Point 35 Microstructures, memsstar received an investment from Albion Ventures in 2007, and has since been a self-funded company, McKie says.

Applied Materials’ Olympia ALD Spins Powerful New Capabilities

Monday, July 13th, 2015

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By Ed Korczynski, Sr. Technical Editor

Applied Materials today unveiled the Applied Olympia ALD system, using thermal sequential-ALD technology for the high-volume manufacturing (HVM) of leading-edge 3D memory and logic chips. Strictly speaking this is a mini-batch tool, since four 300mm wafers are loaded onto a turn-table in the chamber that continuously rotates through four gas-isolated modular processing zones. Each zone can be configured to flow any arbitrary ALD precursor or to exposure the surface to Rapid-Thermal-Processing (RTP) illumination, so an extraordinary combination of ALD processes can be run in the tool. “What are the applications that will result from this? We don’t know yet because the world has never before had a tool which could provide these capabilities,” said David Chu, Strategic Marketing, Applied’s Dielectric Systems and Modules group.

Fig.1: The four zones within the Olympia sequential-ALD chamber can be configured to use any combination of precursors or treatments. (Source: Applied Materials)

Figure 1 shows that in addition to a high-throughput simple ALD process such that wafers would rotate through A-B-A-B precursors in sequence, or zones configured in an A-B-C-B sequence to produce a nano-laminate such as Zirconia-Alumina-Zirconia (ZAZ), almost any combination of pre- and post-treatments can be used. The gas-panel and chemical source sub-systems in the tool allow for the use up to 4 precursors. Consequently, Olympia opens the way to depositing the widest spectrum of next-generation atomic-scale conformal films including advanced patterning films, higher- and lower-k dielectrics, low-temperature films, and nano-laminates.

“The Olympia system overcomes fundamental limitations chipmakers are experiencing with conventional ALD technologies, such as reduced chemistry control of single-wafer solutions and long cycle times of furnaces,” Dr. Mukund Srinivasan, vice president and general manager of Applied’s Dielectric Systems and Modules group. “Because of this, we’re seeing strong market response, with Olympia systems installed at multiple customers to support their move to 10nm and beyond.” Future device structures will need more and more conformal ALD, as new materials will have to coat new 3D features.

When engineering even-smaller structures using ALD, thermal budgets inherently decrease to prevent atomic inter-diffusion. Compared to thermal ALD, Plasma-Enhanced ALD (PEALD) functions at reduced temperatures but tend to induce impurities in the film because of excess energy in the chamber. The ability of Olympia to do RTP for each sequentially deposited atomic-layer leads to final film properties that are inherently superior in defectivity levels to PEALD films at the same thermal budget:  alumina, silica, silicon-nitride, titania, and titanium-nitride depositions into high aspect-ratio structures have been shown.

Purging (from the tool) pump-purge

Fab engineers who have to deal with ALD technology—from process to facilities—should be very happy working with Olympia because the precursors flow through the chamber continuously instead of having to use the pump-purge sequences typical of single-wafer and mini-batch ALD tools used for IC fabrication. Pump-purge sequences in ALD tools result in the following wastes:

*   Wasted chemistry since tools generally shunt precursor-A past the chamber directly to the pump-line when precursor-B is flowing and vice-versa,

*   More wasted chemistry because the entire chamber gets coated along with the wafer,

*   Wasted cleaning chemistry during routine chamber and pump preventative-maintenance,

*   Wasted downtime to clean the chamber and pump, and

*   Wasted device yield because precursors flowing in the same space at different times can accidentally overlap and create defects.

“Today there are chemistries that are more or less compatible with tools,” reminded Chu. “When you try to use less-compatible chemistries, the purge times in single-wafer tools really begin to reduce the productivity of the process. There are chemistries out there today that would be desirable to use that are not pursued due to the limitations of pump-purge chambers.”

—E.K.

Solid State Watch: June 19-25, 2015

Friday, June 26th, 2015
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New Applied PVD system targets TiN hardmasks for 10nm, 7nm chips

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

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By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor

Applied Materials today introduces the Applied Endura Cirrus HTX PVD, a physical vapor deposition system for creating titanium nitride hardmask films that could be used in fabricating 10-nanometer and 7nm chips.

“Titanium nitride is the metal hardmask of choice,” harder than copper and nearly as hard as diamond, says Sree Kesapragada, Applied’s global product manager for Metal Deposition Products.

“Patterning plays key role in defining the interconnect,” Kesapragada says. “Perfect via alignment is critical for device yield. Hardmask ensures the perfect via alignment critical for yield.”

The hardmasks created with the Endura Cirrus HTX TiN system strike the required balance between neutral stress and film density hardness, he asserts. The TiN hardmask, meant to resist the erosion of etching, helps ensure that via etches land where they are supposed to, and not too close to neighboring vias, which can creates shorts.

Metal hardmask layer manages alignment errors.

Applied has worked with customers at multiple sites in developing the new PVD system over the past two to three years, according to Kesapragada. He emphasizes that the Cirrus HTX TiN system offers “precision control over TiN crystal growth,” as the process chamber is “designed for tensile high-density TiN films.” The new PVD system enables high density, tensile films thanks to a high level of ionization during deposition made possible by a high frequency source.

High film desnity is needed to prevent erosion, and a neutral-to-tensile stress is needed for pattern fidelity. CVD/ALD films have tensile stress, but are low density. Traditionally deposited TiN films have good density, but compressive stress.

The formation of “islands” of TiN crystals is almost like chemical vapor deposition, “layer by layer,” Kesapragada says, “in a PVD chamber.”

In the process chamber, the first of its kind, titanium atoms are reactively sputtered in a nitrogen-based plasma, allowing for tunable composition, according to Applied. This chamber can be used for high-volume manufacturing of semiconductors with 7nm features, covering two process-node generations, Kesapragada says.

There is also “very established integration” with chemical mechanical planarization equipment, he adds.

Applied is the market leader in TiN PVD systems, with more than 200 systems shipped, according to Kesapragada. Those PVD systems have more than 700 process chambers, he adds.

The Endura Cirrus HTX TiN PVD system is being formally introduced this week at the IEEE’s 2015 International Interconnect Technology Conference in Grenoble, France.

Solid State Watch: April 24-30, 2015

Monday, May 4th, 2015
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Solid State Watch: April 17-23, 2015

Friday, April 24th, 2015
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Solid State Watch: February 20-26, 2015

Monday, March 2nd, 2015
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