I had some very interesting conversations at this year’s “SEMICON West” conference and exhibition in San Francisco. And I have to say this surprised me somewhat, since, to be honest, I have come to view the event as a little old and tired over the last few years. Obviously, my interest is largely restricted to contamination control developments and technology, but even looking at semiconductor manufacturing progress across the board, the pace of truly new technology implementation, or introduction, has been painfully slow. I mean, how excited can we get year after year about high-k/metal-gate technology, 45 nm nodes, and 300 mm wafer-scale tools?
That’s why I was so pleased to see at least one area of significant new progress. The very real challenge of molecular contamination has finally come to the mainstream in terms of the industry recognizing its impact on yield and its willingness to actually invest in new control systems and practices. Certainly, we’ve been talking about molecular contamination control in the pages of this magazine for at least as long as the semiconductor industry has been talking about “45 nm and beyond,” but I believe I now see the first signs of an emerging watershed in terms of an all-out competitive drive to address the problem with real solutions.
One clear indicator of the growing attention being paid to molecular contamination is the simple fact that semiconductor companies are increasingly loathe to discuss their individual activities in the area and certainly not willing to share any “solutions” being tried. But even more telling is the shift in focus of our own contamination control industry expertise away from simple broad-based filtration and other molecular contamination removal systems to detailed studies and analysis of process equipment designs and chemistries, molecular-level defects, and complex chemical and material interactions-all aimed at taking the science of molecular contamination control out of the realm of keep-your-fingers-crossed, black-magic solutions to well characterized and highly targeted solutions.
So if I’m seeing behind the curtain properly, molecular contamination control isn’t just an “important-down-the-road concern” for the semiconductor industry anymore but a real and expensive problem today-and one not being particularly well addressed as yet. Once this cat is fully out of the bag, and semiconductor companies accept they’re all sharing the same problems-and also all having the same limited success at implementing solutions-we should expect to see more open discussion and a further spike in cooperative research and investment activities. We should also see a larger and more varied group of potential solution providers participating in the process.
Even though I’m wary of overstating the impact and immediacy of any trend in the painfully cautious semiconductor industry these days, I do think this development stands a good chance of becoming the single largest, new opportunity for contamination control companies in the semiconductor sector in quite some time.