Vacuum subsystems: largest and fastest growing market segment

Vacuum pumps, pressure gauges and vacuum valves combined make up the biggest expense on the bill of materials for semiconductor OEMs. In 2016, just over $1.9 billion of vacuum subsystems were consumed by the semiconductor industry and more than half were supplied by European vendors, according to VLI Research.

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Vacuum subsystems sales account for one third of expenditures on all critical subsystems used on semiconductor manufacturing equipment (excluding optical subsystems). The increase in vacuum process intensity of the semiconductor industry means that by 2022, the market for vacuum subsystems could be up to 62 percent higher than today’s value of $1.9 billion, reaching a market size of $3.1 billion.

The growing number of vacuum process steps has been driven by multiple patterning and the successful introduction of 3D NAND. Both require additional deposition and etch steps and, in the case of 3D NAND, longer and more difficult etch processes. On the negative side, this has increased costs for chipmakers and is driving the adoption of Extreme Ultraviolet lithography (EUV) which reduces the reliance on multiple patterning. However, even with EUV (which is a vacuum process), the number of deposition and etch steps are still expected to increase, albeit at a lower rate. This explains why the forecast is for sales of vacuum subsystems to outgrow the market over the next five years.

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The top five vacuum subsystem suppliers account for 68 percent of the market and is dominated by four European based vendors. In 2016, over 58 percent of all vacuum subsystems were sold by European companies and is a reflection of the European origins of vacuum technology. The Japanese vendors as a group make up 21 percent of the total while North American vendors supply 16 percent.

There is a push for more localisation of vacuum subsystem supply especially in Korea and China but to date this has not resulted in a serious local supplier emerging to challenge the incumbents. The strong hold that Europeans and Japanese have on the technology mean that we are unlikely to see any meaningful regional shifts in supply in the foreseeable future.

The expectation is that vacuum subsystems suppliers will continue to make a valuable contribution to semiconductor manufacturing over the long-term as the trend for more vacuum process steps continues.

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