Semiconductors: How Small Can They Go?

Notebook: From the floor of the SEMICON West expo in San Francisco, companies looking to produce the next generation of chips for future digital devices confront new technological and business challenges.

SAN FRANCISCO—The enterprise and consumers alike have benefited from the steady progress in semiconductor manufacturing process. However, changes in the marketplace present new business and technological challenges for circuit builders, ones that could disrupt the traditional order.

The production and testing hurdles of smaller-sized chips that use new materials, the integration of micromechanical devices into circuit boards and the growth of nanotechnology are all under discussion here at the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International associations annual SEMICON West expo.

These new topics compete for space and consideration with the usual manufacturing fare: plumbing, printing and packaging. The show is packed with little room to spare into all corners of the Moscone Centers three halls.

In his July 11 keynote address, Guy DuBois, vice president of strategic projects at STMicroelectronics Group, of Geneva, targeted a range of hurdles that must be overcome, including the demands of device makers, the increasing need for expertise by manufacturers and the strain of investment in new plants.

According to DuBois, customers—that is, device makers—are looking for one-stop shopping for a broad range of state-of-the-art technologies. These demands also bring concerns over IP protection as well as cost considerations. This wide scope can tax the chip manufacturer that focuses on a narrow market.

On the materials front, DuBois said new generations of chips require an understanding of some 40 to 50 different materials, many more than in the past. "We need the same knowledge of new materials as we had with silicon," he said.

He also pointed to new engineering complications arising from the complexity of 45nm and smaller chips. For example, he said the on-chip temperature within 1 square millimeter can fluctuate from 25 to 70 degrees Celsius (77 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit).

The increasing churn in the consumer device space also creates problems for chip manufacturers, DuBois said. With the cost of a new fab heading above $3 billion, manufacturers needed to find ways to quickly recoup the investment in the plant.

Since a chip facility needs to produce some 10 thousand wafers a week to be profitable, manufacturers must have enough customers with preexisting orders that can support a "rocket" ramp-up, he said. This rocket refers to the graph line showing quick return on the capital spent on the plant.

DuBois pointed to a solution to the challenge of this quick production cycle: "coopetition," or multicompany alliances that encompass cooperation as well as competition.

The case in point for STMicroelectronics is the Crolles2 alliance, based in Crolles, France. Formed in 2002, the group includes Freescale Semiconductor (formerly Motorolas chip wing) and Koninklijke Philips Electronics, and targets forthcoming 65nm and 45nm processes as well as RF (radio frequency) integration and copper interconnects.

According to DuBois, these alliances for R&D, manufacturing and business can allow parallel development of technology and manufacturing, befitting all participants. He called the arrangement a "type of polygamy" that will lower cost and boost speed of production.

/zimages/2/28571.gifNotebook computers are still shrinking. Read more here.

Hanging over the show is the concept of the "device," which this year and into the future means portable consumer electronics that combine a variety of digital and analog features, including cell phones and music/video players such as Apple Computers iPod—which could be seen on display as a promotion in many booths on the show floor. Or completely taken apart in others.

"Handsets are driving the market," Don Stroud, director of business development at analyst company Portelligent, based in Austin, Texas, told The company provides detailed teardowns and costs for each part of the subassemblies found in more than 100 products. Portelligents booth displayed digital cameras, phones and player devices completely taken apart.

Advances in MEMS (microelectrical mechanical systems) are also a hot topic in 2006. Made with a process similar to semiconductors, MEMS technology leverages the same tools and manufacturing process as CMOS chips but lets manufacturers put a camera, microphone, RF wireless transmitter/receiver or sensor on a single chip with the same economies of production.

The tracks of the conference could be found in four stages located in corners of the show floor. The divisions were emerging technologies (such as nanotech and MEMS); testing and assembly/packaging issues; best practices in manufacturing productivity and effectiveness; and challenges in scaling devices to 45nm and 32nm.

Of course, the change to smaller processes brings new challenges to each step in manufacturing, vendors said. For example, in a session on chip packaging, presenters noted that the chip design stage must now address packaging issues rather than leaving them to be sorted out later.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about how chip makers are using nanotechnology to boost flash memory.

Differences in scaling processes down to the next generation of semiconductors could even be found in the photomasks used to create semiconductors, vendors said. Benjamin Eynon, senior director of marketing for KLA-Tencor, based in San Jose, Calif., warned that masks can now suffer degradation and that increased inspection will be necessary for 45nm and 32nm processes. This will drive up costs of production.

Alongside the nanotechnology in the Technology Innovation Showcase section were several demonstrations of green energy, including fuel cell automobiles and alternative energy generation panels.

Semiconductors are a natural fit with these technologies, either because they are manufactured in a similar way to chips or because they require increasing numbers of processors to operate. For example, STMicroelectronics DuBois said that by 2010, automobile applications will comprise 25 percent of the entire semiconductor market.

Several hydrogen fuel cell cars were on display. Hydrogen is already used in semiconductor fabrication and vendors are eager to find a wider market for the gas.

/zimages/2/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on servers, switches and networking protocols for the enterprise and small businesses.