Applied Materials Pushes the Sub-90nm Agenda

SAN FRANCISCO — Looking to improve the way chips are made in the nano-technology manufacturing era, Applied Materials this week introduced a handful of new products designed to shrink chips to sizes of 90 nanometers and smaller.

The company Monday said it has struck a deal with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing to develop their next generation of copper chips using Applied’s new SlimCell electro-chemical plating (ECP) system (for copper deposition).

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip-equipment maker also took the wraps off its new iSprint Centura system, an integrated 300mm ALD/CVD system for sub-90nm tungsten contact production applications. Other Applied products debuting at the SEMICON West conference here and in San Jose, Calif., include its Chemical Mechanical Planarization (CMP), dielectric etch and Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD).

The company said its new 200mm iSprint ALD/CVD processes are in pilot production for 90nm devices, while additional 200mm systems are being qualified for 90nm in the U.S., Asia and Europe. In addition to the iSprint system, Applied Materials’ ALD portfolio includes the Endura iCuB/S system, and CVD copper for barrier/seed applications.

The new tools are designed for use in advanced 200mm and 300mm copper fab environments and are expected be available at various times in 2004.

“The new state-of-the-art workhorse tools at the show this year address critical customer needs and clearly enhance Applied Materials’ leadership,” Applied Material’s new president and CEO Mike Splinter said in a statement. In fact, one of the most exciting new tools, the SlimCell electro-chemical plating system we had planned to display was intercepted by a customer eager to meet their current need.”

Applied’s machines play a major part in the chip making process, including deposition (layering film on wafers), etching (removing portions of chip material to allow precise construction of circuits), and ion implantation (altering electrical characteristics of certain areas in wafer coatings). Applied also makes metrology and inspection equipment. Intel , AMD and Motorola are their main customers.

The sub-90 nanometer level is one of the fastest emerging areas in the sector as chipmakers look to cram faster processors into smaller spaces. While the practice is emerging in some microprocessor circles, it has been somewhat of the new brass ring in mainstream CPUs.

Hoping to extend his own law of physics Intel co-founder Gordon Moore recently pointed to improved lithography to print and etch lines on semiconductor wafers closer together.

Intel, for example, is looking at releasing Pentium chips based on the 90nm process level by the end of this year with 60nm due out in 2005. Given Moore’s estimates of 2 or 3 years between generations, 45nm and 30nm processors should be readily available by 2010.

“Below 30nm it’s not clear which direction we will go because there is always some type of catastrophe in the future… always some type of challenge,” Moore said before the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference back in February.

AMD says it will plan on moving to the 90nm in the first half of 2004 and 65nm sometime between late 2005 and early 2006, about the same time the company said it plans on transferring its wafer production from 200mm to 300mm.

The road has not been easy for Applied. The company has been going through a restructuring of late. In March 2003, Applied said it would eliminate about 2,000 positions or 14 percent of the company’s global work force. To help stabilize the situation, the company brought in Splinter, a former Intel executive vice president.

Analysts at Deutsche Bank Securities say the company has done well in that stead and is seeing a $28 billion opportunity in wafer fab equipment service including direct materials procurement, purchasing, certain engineering functions, as well as redoubled efforts with its existing tool refurbishment/maintenance programs.

“In line with our recent commentary, the company is seeing signs of a cyclical recovery in the second half of 2003 driven by both technology (300mm) and some isolated capacity buys for leading edge applications,” Deutsche Bank analyst Timothy M. Arcuri said in his briefing.

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