For several years now, 450mm wafer processing has been under discussion, but apart from work on setting standards, little has actually emerged. Much discussion focused on whether the industry could actually afford to make this transition and whether it actually needs it. With the joint efforts of leading semiconductor manufactures as well as some support from governmental organizations, the transition of 450mm semiconductor wafers now looks inevitable.
Movement Towards 450mm Officially Begins
The situation changed dramatically during the first quarter of 2011 following Intel Corp's and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing's Company's near simultaneous announcements that they intend to roll out 450mm. Samsung has also hinted plans to use 450mm wafers. It now looks like Globalfoundries and IBM are also likely to be interested. In addition, there is an initiative by the European Commission to investigate the benefits of setting up 450mm semiconductor manufacturing in Europe, along with IMEC and ASML’s crucial role in the transition execution (together these firms control many of the 450mm patents) and New York State’s subsidized investment in a 450mm tool prototyping complex in Albany, added a geographic and political dimension. As such, even the most die-hard sceptics from the industry have now come round to accepting that 450mm will actually happen, reports Future Horizons market research firm in its September's issue of Global Semiconductor Monthly Report. The transition will dramatically impact the whole chip industry and will likely affect all the players.
As with previous wafer size changes, the transition to 450mm wafer processing cannot be done overnight. But this time it does seem as if it will be well coordinated across the full industry ecosystem, from the advanced research centres in IMEC and Albany to the potential leading-edge semiconductor end users keen to keep up their 29% per year gate cost learning curve decline.
Process Tech and 450mm Transition Roadmaps Likely to Align
The transition from today’s 32/28nm advanced production nodes to the 11/10nm structures expected to be in early production around 2015/2016 is littered with process dislocations, both in the structure of the transistors and the means to pattern and build them, with the structures and patterning techniques different for each node. In general, it is highly expected that in 2015/2016 the first 450mm prototype facilities will have to rely on extreme ultraviolet (EUV). Since EUV will be a must for 11nm and below fabrication processes, it is likely that equipment makers will only produce tools for 450mm wafers and not for 300mm wafers. All-in-all, semiconductor process node roadmap and the transition to 450mm wafers are unlikely to remain independent topics and will need to become intrinsically linked so that to cut costs for everyone, believes Future Horizons.
There is also an agreed and clear process introduction strategy to prove the 450mm platform first on a (relatively) mature and well-understood technology node before moving what by then is an established and well-understood 450mm platform to the then leading-edge technology node. This means that for a period of time 300mm will appear to be more node-advanced than its 450mm sibling, according to Future Horizons. While some people still argue that parallel node development will continue on both 300mm and 450mm platforms, the likelihood is that this will not make economic sense, even if the equipment R&D resources are available.
Elite Semiconductor Makers
So far, only Intel, Samsung and TSMC said they were committed to build 450mm semiconductor production facilities. Recently Intel, IBM, TSMC, GlobalFoundries and Samsung announced a project that will focus on transforming existing 300mm production standards into the new 450mm standards, so in general the path has been chosen. One of the biggest questions that remains unclear is whether companies like Toshiba Corp. (who will need to have 450mm capacities to remain competitive with Samsung), United Microelectronics Corp. (who will have to retain ability to rival both GF and TSMC) and some others decide to join the 450mm club. At the end, that club of elite semiconductor makers may eventually become the club of the only makers of chips on the planet in the long term.
Future Horizons believe that The move to 450mm will inevitably be an inflection point for the industry, with enormous ramifications for the complete semiconductor ecosystem. Those firms with 450mm capability will enjoy a huge competitive advantage of staying on the Moore curve node development roadmap, a potential 30% lower die cost advantage and a more efficient manufacturing tool platform. The remaining 300mm platforms will be squeezed into increasingly over-crowded niches.