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Marrying diversification, innovation with high-volume manufacturing – the MEMS puzzle

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

By Sara Verbruggen

Initiated by Apple’s launch of the iPhone, the subsequent explosive growth of the smartphone market has provided the MEMS industry with one of its biggest opportunities to supply high-volume demand. But if motion sensing in our portable electronics – enabled by accelerometer and gyroscope MEMS applications for example – is the tip of the iceberg for MEMS technology how can the semiconductor industry ensure that high volume markets like consumer electronics benefit from all that MEMS potentially has to offer.

As the MEMS industry evolves, in terms of further diversification of device applications in higher volumes, this creates manufacturing challenges.

‘Organizations like MIG are helping to set standards across classes of devices in terms of specifications, rating, test interfaces, and system interfaces, and this is a great advancement in helping the industry to grow. On the manufacturing side though it is unlikely that a “standard” MEMS flow will emerge even within individual foundries except for very specific and limited types of MEMS – Invensense NF Process is an example of an attempt at this,’ comments Silex Microsystems’ VP of marketing and strategic alliances Peter Himes.

The emergence of MEMS technology over the last decade into high volume markets – consumer electronics especially – has presented the semiconductor industry with the challenge of designing and fabricating devices with different functionalities (as opposed to focusing on scaling down while ramping performance). This has paved the way for electronics in industries as diverse as healthcare, energy, security and environment. The long-term growth of MEMS depends on functional diversification but also being able to manufacture devices for these various applications in significant volumes and bringing down cost.

More than Moore techniques and processes

Wafer-scaling fabrication and process technologies, to enable these ‘More than Moore architectures’ are beginning to become established in MEMS manufacturing, for high volume markets.

SEMI’s chief marketing officer Tom Morrow says: ‘To be competitive in high-volume MEMs markets, 8” production equipment and economies will be, if not already, needed. Deep reactive ion etch (DRIE) “tuned” for MEMs technologies are also required, coupled with advanced cleaning solutions such as plasma. Bonding is, with DRIE, the other key MEMS-specific technology, used for wafer level capping and wafer level packaging.’ Critical concerns include providing good hermetic solutions to maintain performance of sensitive moving parts like gyros, while taking up less area on the wafer with bond lines. ‘The bonding process tends to take time, so throughput is typically low. Room temperature bonding and temporary bonding are areas of major improvement,’ adds Morrow.

DRIE and wafer bonding are the technologies subject to significant process improvement as both technologies are increasingly used in the mainstream semiconductor industry for 3D-TSV. In addition packaging and bonding technologies today support increasing standardization.

‘While contact and proximity aligners remain prominent lithography tools for MEMs, there is some movement towards projection steppers for better CD uniformity and automated 8” volume production,’ according to Morrow. Tools also need to be able to handle thin wafers and manufacturers also demand better overlay precision.

TSV is a critical technology, agrees Silex Microsystems’ Peter Himes. The company has specialised in TSV integration into MEMS since 2005 when its Sil-Via technology went into first production. This process, developed for the mobile industry, consisted of an all-silicon interposer for 2.5D integration of a MEMS microphone and ASIC onto a silicon substrate which was then solder- bumped and mounted directly onto the PCB.

‘Since then, we have been developing more TSV options for our customers, including TSV for buried cavity MEMS, TSV for capping solutions of either MEMS or CMOS, and both metal TSV and TGV through glass substrates for RF and power applications,’ says Himes.

As MEMS companies increasingly move beyond competing on manufacturing technology to competing on functionality, more of TSV/WLP packaging solutions will become widely-used platforms, predicts Yole Développement. This would also make more use of the outsourced infrastructure to reduce costs and speed-up development time.

‘Today, a few MEMS companies such as VTI, STMicroelectronics, Robert Bosch or MEMSIC have successfully implemented 3D wafer-level packaging concepts by using TSV/TGV vertical feedthrough, redistribution layers, and bumping processes to directly connect the silicon part of the MEMS/sensor to the final motherboard but without using a ceramic, leadframe, or plastic package. We believe this trend will be accelerated even further with the shift to 200mm wafer manufacturing for MEMS: it just makes sense to use wafer-level packaging, because as soon as you can add more dies on a wafer, it is more cost-effective,’ says Eric Mounier from Yole.

AMAT’s Mike Rosa points out that wafer-scale integration techniques, to enable more device functionality on a per die area basis, in combination with system-on-chip technologies to enable greater intelligence on die is becoming a standard requirement for more advanced MEMS.  ‘The end-users (system integrators – like Apple or Samsung for example) now require the MEMS device to do a lot more of the signal processing than has traditionally been the case – hence MEMS designers have to include more signal processing (CMOS) capability on die,’ says Rosa.

Fabless model

The fabless approach in the MEMS industry is now well-established, where, in order to speed up MEMS development device cycles, foundry companies partner with designers to provide them with process modules around which designers can develop MEMS devices.

But for the fabless model to facilitate the development of more differentiated and disruptive MEMS and to ensure companies remain competitive manufacturers need to be able to embrace and adopt new manufacturing processes and material technologies – which accompany disruptive new MEMS devices. ‘In the foundry space, it’s the foundry partner who is strongest in technology development that will win market share – this there is already a clear ‘pecking order’ with the big three foundries today and that is for a very good reason,’ says Rosa.

Silex is an example of a successful business servicing the fabless segment, through its program with AMFitzgerald. ‘The fact is that new companies cannot afford the cost of building a MEMS manufacturing line, and need a foundry infrastructure to get their products to market,’ says Himes.

Several key factors point to a strengthening fabless market in the long term, he observes. These include an ongoing reduction in overall development times for MEMS over the past two decades, lowering the time to market for new MEMS devices ‘though Yole is correct in saying that it needs to come down further,’ he adds. Increasingly fabless start-ups are driving innovation in MEMS-based functionality. ‘The percentage of MEMS revenues which comes from components not on the market before 2006 has been steadily growing, pointing to increased diversity and expansion of the MEMS- enabled market,’ says Himes pointing to a recent iSuppli presentation.

‘In terms of what works, Silex’s systematic SmartBlock-based approach toward process integration coupled with our defined new product introduction (NPI) process has proven to be the best way for us to manage the risk and uncertainty which comes with any process development. While customers always want shorter time to full production, an early focus of our customer programs is to get the customer fully functional samples as early as possible so that the rest of the component or system can be developed,’ Himes explains.

According to Mounier a successful fabless model relies on a MEMS designer, or similar business, finding a reliable foundry working on the long term. ‘Depending on the application, the foundry will have to be competitive on cost (consumer, automotive) or performances (defense, industrial applications). However, as many new MEMS devices are emerging in for new applications, such as touchscreens and flat speakers, MEMS foundries must be able to think about adapting the customer design to their own process flow.’

The RocketMEMS program run by AMFitzgerald & Associates is a good example. The company has defined a product design platform for rapidly commercializing semi-custom MEMS devices (pressure sensors is the first area) based on a pre-qualified manufacturing flow at Silex. ‘We think that this is an efficient path toward design enablement that can avoid the “one product, one process” paradigm in the long term,’ says Himes. Customers would be prioritizing time to market and customized form-fit-function over fully customized and optimized MEMS process flow. ‘We can envision many more such programs being set up worldwide, and thereby expanding the capability of doing MEMS design from the PhD level down to a broader class of component design engineers,’ he adds.

There are various challenges in the MEMs industry, owing to both the required process craftsmanship seen in advanced devices and the sheer proliferation of device types. Morrow observes: ‘Foundries continue to address these challenges through process capability improvement, and are benefitting from a maturing design process ecosystem that understands the need for integration with manufacturing, particularly in high-volume segments such as inertial sensors, microphones, and optical MEMs. Lower volume products, highly specialized device types, unique packaging or ASIC integration requirements seem to support IDM-type manufacturing.’

The Week In Review: Sept. 30

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Applied Materials Inc. and Tokyo Electron Limited this week announced Applied Materials agreed to merge with Tokyo Electron in a deal valuing the Japanese semiconductor production equipment maker at $9.3 billion, creating a giant in the chip and display manufacturing-tools sector.

Micron Technology, Inc. announced that it is shipping 2GB Hybrid Memory Cube (HMC) engineering samples. Micron expects future generations of HMC to migrate to consumer applications within three to five years.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, Soitec, CEA-Leti and the Helmholtz Center Berlin jointly announced this week having achieved a new world record for the conversion of sunlight into electricity using a new solar cell structure with four solar subcells.

Fujifilm and imec have developed a new photoresist technology for organic semiconductors that enables the realization of submicron patterns.

Mentor Graphics announced the latest release of its a FloEFD concurrent computational fluid dynamics (CFD) product.

Applied Materials – Tokyo Electron Merger Hastens EDA Changes

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Paradoxically, the merger of equipment manufacturers AMAT and TEL may shrink the Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tool market while improving IP security.

In the last several days, much has been written about the proposed merger of Applied Materials (AMAT) and Tokyo Electron (TEL). Desired by both, this merger would create a company worth $29B that would be the largest semiconductor equipment company in the world by sales. In comparison, the EDA tool market is roughly valued at $1.1B.

This merger of capital equipment giants represents an ongoing consolidation of the semiconductor supply chain, from chip/component developers through the IDM/foundries and manufacturing space. One reason for this consolidation is the increasingly high costs of making chips smaller and smaller – e.g., at the leading edge process nodes.

At first glance, it would appear that the merger will have little impact on the world of semiconductor intellectual property (IP). Still, one of the stated goals of the merged companies is to extract costs, “from all layers of the supply chain,” according to a recent report from Canaccord Genuity’s analyst Josh Baribeau (see, “Size Matters: Our First Take on AMAT’s Proposed Merger with Tel.”)

While admittedly far down on the supply chain relative to capital equipment, the Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tool market – heavy dependent on design and verification IP – might feel the effects of this merger in several ways.

First, equipment manufactures use EDA tools and related processes to qualify new manufacturing systems. For example, last year Applied Materials supplied critical film properties (new materials) and device characterization data from its advanced process systems to Synopsys. This allowed the EDA vendor to create more accurate chip design and verification models.

Such new materials and processes are necessary to keep Moore’s Law on track, in contrast to the ever increasing lithographic costs at lower and lower nodes. Several new technologies and process node shrinks are also driving up the cost of manufacturing leading edge chips – such things as 3D NAND devices, 450mm wafers, finFET structures, stacked dies and more.

Still, the cost of EDA tools are low in relationship to other costs. According to long-time EDA analyst Gary Smith, the cost of EDA tools is analogous to lunch money. The real costs in SoC development are related to the cost of engineers to do the design. Greater level of chip design-verification tool automation will reduce these costs, as will, “the reuse of software, the reuse of verifiable design IP, and by reducing SoC core blocks below the typical five blocks.” (see, “Gary Smith’s Sunday Night, Pre-DAC Forecast”)

It may well be that consolidation by the equipment manufactures will result in accelerated consolidation of the lower part of the semiconductor supply chain, e.g., EDA tool vendors. Judging from the furry of acquisitions in the EDA community over the last several years, this scenario is hardly surprising.

On the other hand, this merger of equipment giants might be a good thing for the development of soft IP standards. As Warren Savage pointed out a few months ago (see, “Long Standards, Twinkie IP, Macro Trends, and Patent Trolls“), the semiconductor equipment companies need to approve any IP design standards since it will be their systems that must read the soft IP.

Consolidation of the equipment market should mean fewer companies that need to approve any such standards, thus (in theory) hastening the approval process.

Will the end result of the AMAT and TEL merger mean further consolidation of EDA tools and hence the IP markets? Will the merger lead to greater IP protection at the lower process nodes? The answer will probably be revealed in the next installment of Moore’s Law, i.e., the next process node advancement.

Experts Roundtable: More than Moore – manufacturing challenges for MEMS

Friday, September 27th, 2013

By Sara Verbruggen

Semiconductor Design & Manufacturing discussed ‘More than Moore‘ (MtM) standardization topics and challenges with Peter Himes, VP of marketing and strategic alliances at Silex Microsystems, Dr Eric Mounier, senior analyst, MEMS devices and technologies at Yole Développement, Tom Morrow, chief marketing officer at SEMI and Mike Rosa, senior global product strategic marketing manager – emerging technologies, 200mm components and systems group at Applied Materials. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

SemiMD: What is the scope and potential for further standardization in MEMS fabrication – for example, consumer markets such as handheld/portable electronics demand MEMS that are smaller and lower in cost, but to what extent does the diversity in MEMS devices in terms of their functionality, applications and manufacturing defy standardization and how can this be overcome?

Peter Himes: In the MEMS industry I would say that the opportunity for standardization today is limited, but the potential for more standardization in certain areas is sure to develop. Think about the mechanical goods and products you use each day. Are all corkscrews identical? Do all blenders look the same? Are they manufactured exactly the same? Yet they all perform the same function. This is where MEMS is today, with differentiation through MEMS design. You can say that for all blenders the motor element can be the same and products can differentiate with functionality and product design, and maybe that is a model for certain classes of MEMS moving forward.

Eric Mounier: Standardization is definitively an issue for MEMS manufacturing. However, standardization can occur at two levels; packaging standardization and front-end process standardization. Both are underway in the MEMS industry.

Referring to packaging standardization, MEMS types of packaging are more complex than most standard IC packages because they require a System-in-Package type of assembly. Additionally, sensor packages are generally quite bulky and can have very specific constraints like a module with a cavity, a hole in the substrate or metal lead for pressure sensors and microphones, an optical window for optical MEMS, or a full vacuum hermeticity at the die level. As a result, standardization is becoming increasingly critical to support the massive volume grow in unit shipments along with decreasing overall costs associated with MEMS and sensor content, in particular related to their packaging. If we look at one specific MEMS example, a microphone for instance, these are all packaged the same way: BGA/LGA laminate PCB substrate + SiP module assembly with wire bonding + metal lid or PCB cap with integrated shielding + “hole” for air access.

Tom Morrow: The history and dynamics of the MEMs industry has not facilitated MEMs manufacturing standardization as we have seen in the semiconductor industry.  This is partly due to the diversity of devices where rapid adoption of some early products  — such as tire pressure monitoring, air bag deployment sensors, ink jet printing heads, and others — initially encouraged the “one product, one process” character of today’s industry.

Early on, the need for advanced and integrated process expertise as a requirement for product development challenged the development of fabless MEMS companies. It also challenged foundries whose expertise and business model depended on a “many products, one process” approach to serve multiple customers necessary to amortize their capital investment. Accelerometers, microphones and optical components are extremely diverse products requiring unique process capabilities, application “know-how” and design tools. MEMs companies were forced to develop new products with their own custom process expertise and/or depend on a manufacturing partner for joint development of new products. Also, as most MEMs manufacturing was on 6” and less wafers with secondary equipment, there was no compelling reason to standardize key equipment types and their supporting integration requirements, as there are in leading-edge semiconductors.

Mike Rosa: Today, the bulk of all high volume MEMS are built on 200mm wafers in order to satisfy the volume/price requirement – this wafer size is currently under a lot of pressure due to ASP erosion 3-5% per quarter on MEMS devices.  This has led a number of segment leaders to explore MEMS development on fully depreciated 300mm toolsets, not for the advanced line width capabilities of 300mm but simply because they can fit more devices per wafer. This combined with advanced packaging techniques will increase the number of die per wafer and reduce the per die footprint. This is currently considered the final incarnation of MEMS on wafer based technologies – beyond this, other manufacturing techniques such as roll-to-roll or large area substrate (akin to glass panel for flat screen TV) are being explored at the R&D level in an effort to support the latest drivers of mega-volume MEMS, such as wearable computing, trillion sensor vision and so on, which will require around two orders of magnitude price reduction over current MEMS devices with equivalent or increased device capability. With specific regard to the diversity in MEMS design/fabrication and its impact on their manufacturability and cost, the segment as a whole is now past this, to a large extent, with all participating vendors now owning the requisite manufacturing tools to make a variety of MEMS devices. Because of this the basic problem has reduced to number of die on a wafer and techniques used to make MEMS smaller (which means due to their requirement for minimum mass, either vertical integration of wafers/die or new sensing materials/techniques to replace current MEMS functions).

How are MEMS foundries standardizing MEMS fabrication processes to deliver faster turnaround, lower costs and reducing time to market for new MEMS device designs?
Mike Rosa: While there is, of course, a lot of discussion around standardization of MEMS processes, the reality is that very little can and is being done in this area. The foundries are usually followers in this space and work to adopt processes that can support the highest volume MEMS devices in the hope that they obtain work orders by second tier suppliers, fabless companies or overflow orders from IDMs. In recent times some of the ‘bright spots’ in standardization have occurred around the licensing of successful MEMS design architectures – fabless company Invensense is an example here, which licensed its fabrication process for Ge/Si integrated devices based on an advanced packaging technique.

Tom Morrow: As the MEMs market has grown, foundries have increasingly improved their processes, IP and technology necessary to support economical, high-volume production. Many MEM foundries have invested millions of dollars over the past several years in preparation for the emergence of a fabless MEMs market and are seeing the benefits of their efforts come to fruition.  They have invested in process capabilities, PDK and design support, are moving from custom manufacturing to platform manufacturing flows, and have leveraged their relationships with packaging and test houses to compete with MEMs IDMs.  Their standardization efforts are focused on internal or proprietary standards — how to move from custom flows to platform flows — to achieve economies of scale and work with their package and test partners on standard, repeatable, back-end business. MEMs process technology is also being increasing licensed further facilitating advanced MEMs capabilities by foundries.

Eric Mounier: We expect that as MEMS companies increasingly move beyond competing on manufacturing technology to competing on functionality, thus more of TSV / WLP packaging solutions will become widely-used platforms. A good example of an “in-house” front-end process standardization is the MIDIS platform from Teledyne Dalsa. Depending on the customer’s request, MIDIS has been developed to have a minimal change of design and process to answer the customer request. But Teledyne Dalsa is not the only one having such a standardized solution. Silex Microsystems and MEMScap have technology platforms. Other MEMS foundries with product platforms include Tronics and XFab.

Peter Himes: Today each foundry has their own efforts in this area. Some offer “standard platforms” but being able to use it depends on an exact fit of the intended design to the process flow. However, even these standard platforms should not imply they are standard across different fabs or foundries.

At Silex we have a methodology of standardizing at the block level which we call the SmartBlock approach. A process flow can be built out of two or three SmartBlock elements, plus product specific processing, to create the final process flow. This does not eliminate the process integration work or need to prove the process flow concept with actual silicon before starting any production qualification, but it does help substantially in de-risking the development, which translates in the long run to lower costs, faster time to market, and fewer unique process development efforts.

Solid State Watch: September 20-26

Friday, September 27th, 2013
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Extending Copper Interconnect Beyond The 14nm Node

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Fabricating interconnects is one of the most process-intensive and cost-sensitive parts of manufacturing. To find out more about what’s changing in this area and why it’s so important, click here.