Semiconductor and HDD manufacturers turning to imprint lithography

Mark Melliar-Smith, CEO, Molecular Imprints, Inc., Austin, TX USA

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing focuses the mind like an economic meltdown. The semiconductor industry and its capital equipment suppliers were already in the midst of a severe downturn as we entered the fourth quarter of 2008. Softening consumer demand and overcapacity in memory caused prices to plummet. Overlay the global credit crisis, and our industry faces challenges with a depth and breadth we’ve rarely had to face, even given our volatile history.

We must fight our tendency to overreact with poorly planned cost cutting and a hunkering down, and rather, remind ourselves that from adversity comes opportunity. The technical challenges facing semiconductor makers include new materials such as high- and low-k, new processes such as through-silicon vias and strained silicon, and the omnipresent end of optical lithography. Many of these challenges have accumulated at the door of nonvolatile memory makers, given their leading role in reducing design rules.

Faced with seemingly insatiable demand for more and more storage, producers must continually innovate to deliver higher bit densities at lower cost. For the first time in their respective lives, rotating and solid state storage are examining the same solution to their need for the ever-shrinking, low cost/bit: imprint lithography.

As EUV continues to delay, semiconductor lithographers have deployed an endless litany of design and process tricks to extend 193nm lithography. However, the significant increases in design and process complexity have driven costs to non-competitive levels, and no business can accept a 2× increase in its processing costs even as its products drop 2× each year in price ($/megabit). In consequence, major flash memory producers are now planning to take advantage of imprint’s inherent low capital cost and low CoO in the 2Xnm regime.

Similarly, HDD producers are now moving to patterned media to maintain their history of 50%/year increases in areal density. The cost of leading-edge optical lithography is more than 10x what the drive industry can afford. In contrast, imprint lithography, with its lower cost and ability to print the whole disk in a single step, provides an acceptable solution for patterned media at sub-20nm resolution.

Necessity has been said to be the mother of invention, and today, economic and technical necessities are driving semiconductor memory and HDD manufacturers to turn to imprint lithography.

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