Europe seeks flexible solutions to minifab manufacture

Brian Dance, Contributing Editor (Europe)

High-volume production of standard devices that have a long lifetime, such as DRAMs, continues to move towards Southeast Asia. However, in other regions there is a growing need for very flexible “minifabs” that can be rapidly and economically set up to make low-volume products that have very short lifetimes.

Japan’s Highly Agile Line-Concept Advancement (HALCA) project, which ran from Aug. 2001 to March 2004, aimed to facilitate the rapid and flexible production of such devices in economical minifabs using multiple processing technologies, based on a design concept of 130nm feature sizes on 200mm wafers. The Japanese semiconductor industry invested $75 million in the HALCA project, which worked toward a flexible solution for small-scale manufacturing, easily expandable by gradual investment to meet varying demands.

The initial goals of HALCA were twofold: reduce minifab investment (“minifab” defined as having throughput in the range of 2500 200mm equivalent wafers/month, about one-tenth the size of a “megafab”) through a cost-scalable manufacturing business model for system large-scale integration (LSI), and establish a step-by-step investment business model. A third goal of a 60% reduction in process energy requirements was added to satisfy the Japanese Energy Ministry, which also helped fund the project. The HALCA team has now broken up, with no firm strategic plan to follow up on the concept as a whole, but most of the partners are further investigating the possibilities or are commercializing their intellectual property.

Toward that end, a British group recently visited the HALCA facility at Tsukuba City to investigate the potential impact of the Japanese work on the UK and European semiconductor industries. The visit was coordinated by the Joint Equipment and Materials Initiative (JEMI) representing over 65 organizations serving the UK, European, and global semiconductor value chain, and was supported by the British government’s “Global Watch Service” operated by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The JEMI team feels that the HALCA concept would enable the UK-based equipment and materials industry to consolidate its expertise into a concept that, while still small enough in scale to find multiple applications in the UK, nevertheless would be a world-class technology and methodology for production of semiconductors and related devices.

Many UK companies that use old equipment to process wafers in low volumes may already have an older fab, have agreed to make many products at low volume to keep a fab in production, or have bought equipment at low cost from a closing fab. The operation of such a fab at less than full capacity results in high energy costs, large space requirements, and high consumption of chemicals and water, resulting in low efficiency and likely reducing the product lifetime, as the point of no financial return will come earlier than in a more efficient plant. This is in strong contrast to the HALCA plans for flexibility, speed, and lower costs instead of the use of fully depreciated used equipment.

While the Japanese have concentrated mainly on consumer and automotive applications, the UK group also considered the minifab concept as a way of combining technologies, such as integrated microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), integrated optoelectronics, and biological applications on conventional CMOS, to produce high-quality new products at low volumes with relatively low costs. Applications outside CMOS would be the main aim for the implementation of HALCA in the UK.

Potential fields of application include MEMS, optoelectronic device manufacturing, micro-display production, lab-on-a-chip, and other biology-on-silicon devices, apart from low-volume compound semiconductor device fabrication. In particular, the advent of “lab-on-a-chip” is starting to generate collaboration opportunities with chipmakers, especially for the growing life sciences market for medical, pharmacological, and diagnostic bio-assays. The microfluidic chips for such purposes will need to be made from low-cost materials, disposable after a single use, yet they must be of high quality–thus the agile minifab concept is attractive for this purpose. Startup companies may also benefit, as the capital cost of setting up a full-scale manufacturing cleanroom can be prohibitive at the outset, even if the projected volumes will subsequently require this.

Commercial benefits already are being obtained by the Japanese companies involved in the HALCA project, as versions of equipment were sold only two months after the project closed. This provided them with a competitive advantage in the Japanese domestic markets with global markets to follow later.

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