Business is good for vendors of test and inspection/metrology equipment

By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor

Semiconductor test equipment and inspection/metrology equipment are unglamorous yet critical segments of the equipment field.

Most people could name the top vendors in semiconductor manufacturing equipment, yet many would draw a blank after identifying KLA-Tencor as a leader in inspection/metrology equipment – maybe Applied Materials and Hitachi High-Technologies, if they’re on the ball.

Greg Smith, broadband and computing business unit manager for Teradyne, estimated the semiconductor test system market was worth $2.9 billion in 2014 and could come in at $2.6 billion this year.

“This year looks a little bit weaker than last year, last year being a strong year,” he says. 2014 saw a lot of capital spending on automatic test equipment, particularly in memory testing. The Apple iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6 boosted “the supply chain for those devices,” Smith observes. “This year, there’s not that kind of buzz.”

On the other hand, “automotive is very strong,” Smith says. “Microcontrollers are very strong.”

MCUs account for a total of $150 million to $200 million in sales per year, for all vendors, and testers for chips going into Internet of Things applications account for “probably only $10 million to $15 million of that total,” he adds.

Teradyne will be focusing on semiconductor test at SEMICON West, according to Smith. The company will feature its ETS-800 test system from the Eagle Test Systems line, which can handle radio frequency-enabled MCUs. The J750-LitePoint tester will also be highlighted, targeting chips for smart homes and wearable electronics.

On the inspection/metrology side of the market, Rudolph Technologies expects the second quarter will represent another quarter of growth, its fifth consecutive quarter of growth, according to Mike Plisinski, executive vice president and chief operating officer. Mobility is the main growth engine for the company and the industry, he says.

“Mobility drives a variety of devices and technologies including microprocessors, memory, RF communication devices, and MEMS sensors. The inspection and metrology requirements are increasing for many of these customers as their process complexity increases and at the same time they are under increasing pressure to react faster to consumer demand while improving long term reliability. More importantly, we see a trend towards more integrated solutions for customers,” Plisinski says.

The movement to wafer-level fan-out packaging at the back end is presenting “a lot of challenges in metrology for these types of packages,” Plisinski says.

When it comes to high-end devices using low-k and interlevel dielectrics, “we can predict where chipping and cracking could occur,” he adds. Rudolph has made significant investments in its software, which provides “more and deeper understanding,” he notes. “We go directly into the sensor data at the equipment to correlate it with what is happening at the wafer,” Plisinski says. “This is pushing the limits of our systems, requiring the use of ‘big data’ technologies and advances in data acquisition. That’s all been driven by the last 12 to 18 months of customer demand.”

“We see customers repurposing a lot of 200-millimeter equipment for some of smaller, lower-cost devices used in mobility and the Internet of Things,” Plisinski says. “We never stopped optimizing our 200-millimeter products.”

At the same time, he acknowledges that the Internet of Things is “not really driving Rudolph’s growth.”

FEI sees “momentum in the business that is favorable compared to last year, particularly in Asia,” says Rob Krueger, the company’s vice president and general manager for the semiconductor business. “Logic spending is a little lumpy, compared with memory,” he adds.

Krueger has witnessed research and development spending on 10-nanometer semiconductors in the past year, while R&D on 7nm chips is “definitely on,” he says. “We shipped our first (7nm) tools early this year to advanced laboratories.”

The large silicon foundries dominated FEI’s business in 2014, the executive says. “This year, it’s more regional foundries,” he notes. “We’re starting to see that trickle-down of advanced technology.”

One trend that Krueger sees is the transition from scanning electron microscope analysis to transmission electron microscope analysis. Analytics has evolved beyond “just pictures,” he says. While FEI’s life sciences business makes greater use of “big data” analytics technology than its electronics business, FEI’s customers are “processing larger data sets” when it comes to defect detection, Krueger says. “We’re handling data with standard computing.”

FEI is anticipating “the momentum to continue into the 2nd half of the year,” Krueger says.

FEI last month introduced a new Helios DualBeam plasma-focused ion beam system for electrical fault isolation, electrical failure analysis, and sample preparation for sub-20nm devices. The company has already made some customer shipments of the system, according to Krueger.

As the semiconductor industry progresses to 10nm, 7nm, and possibly 5nm devices, test and inspection/metrology equipment vendors stand ready to handle the challenges of new materials and other aspects of next-generation process nodes.

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