Supplier Hub answers the needs of a changing semiconductor industry

Supplier Hub answers the needs of a changing semiconductor industry. 

BY LUC VAN DEN HOVE, imec, Leuven, Belgium

Supplier HubOur semiconductor industry is a cyclical business, with regular ups and downs. But we have always successfully rebounded, with new technologies that have brought on the next generation of electronic products. Now however, the industry stands at an inflection point. Some of the challenges to introduce next generation technologies are larger than ever before. Overcoming this point will require, in our opinion, a tighter collaboration than ever. To accommodate that collaboration, we have set up a new Supplier Hub, a neutral platform where researchers, IC producers, and suppliers work on solutions for technical challenges. This collaboration will allow the industry to overcome the inflection point and to move on to the next cycle of success, driven by the many exciting application domains that appear on the horizon.

Call for a new collaboration model

The formulas for the industry’s success have changed. Device structures are pushing the limits of physics, making it challenging to continue progressing according to Moore’s Law. Intricate manufacturing requirements make process control ever more difficult. Also chip design is more complex than ever before, requiring more scrutiny, analysis and testing before manufacturing can even begin. And the cost of manufacturing equipment and setting up a fab has risen exponentially, shutting out many smaller companies and forcing equipment and material suppliers to merge.

In that context, more and more innovation is coming from the supplier community, both from equipment and material suppliers. But as processes are approaching some fundamental limits, such as material limits, chemical, physical limits, it is also for suppliers becoming more difficult to operate and develop next-generation process steps in an isolated way. An earlier and stronger interaction among suppliers is needed.

All this makes a central and neutral platform more important than ever. That insight and the requests we got from partners set imec on the path to organizing a supplier hub. A hub that is structured as a neutral, open innovation R&D platform, a platform for which we make a substantial part of our 300mm cleanroom floor space available, even extending our facilities. It is a platform where suppliers and manufacturers collaborate side-to- side with the researchers developing next-generation technology nodes.

Organizing the supplier hub is a logical evolution in the way we have always set up collaborations with and between companies that are involved in semiconductor manufacturing. Collaborations that have proven very successful in the previous decade and that have resulted in a number of key innovations.

Supplier Hub off to a promising start

Today, both in logic and in memory, we are developing solutions to enable 7nm and 5nm technology nodes. These will involve new materials, new transistor architectures, and ever shrinking dimensions of structures and layers. At imec, the bulk of scaling efforts like these used to be done in collaborative programs involving IDMs and foundries, but also the fabless and fablite companies. All of these programs were strongly supported by our partnerships with the supplier community.

But today, to work out the various innovations in process steps needed for future nodes, we simply need this stronger and more strategic engagement from the supplier community, involving experimenting on the latest tools, even if they are still under development. And vice-versa, the tool and material suppliers can no longer only develop tools based on specs documents. To fabricate their products successfully and on time, they need to develop and test in a real process flow, and be involved in the development of new device concepts, to be able to fabricate tools and design process steps that match the requirements of the new devices.

A case in point: it is no longer possible now to develop and asses the latest generation of advanced litho without matching materials and etch processes. And reversely, the other tool suppliers need the result of the latest litho developments. So today, all process steps have to be optimized concurrently with other process steps, integrating material innovations at the same time. And this is absolutely necessary for success.

So that’s where the Supplier Hub enters.

In 2013, imec announced an extended collaboration with ASML, involving the set up an advanced patterning center, which will grow to 100 engineers. In 2014, the new center was started as the cornerstone of the supplier hub. Mid 2014, Lam Research agreed to partake in the hub. And since then a growing number of suppliers has been joining, among them the big names in the industry. Some of more recent collaborations that we announced e.g. were Hitachi (CD-SEM metrology equipment) and SCREEN Semiconductor Solutions (cleaning and surface preparation tools).

End of 2014, ASML started installing its latest EUV-tool, the NXE:3300. In the meantime, we have initiated building a new cleanroom next to our existing 300mm infrastructure. The extra floor space will be needed to accommodate all the additional equipment that will come in in the frame of the tighter collaboration among suppliers. Finally, during our October 2014 Internal Partner Conference, we organized a first Supplier Collaboration Forum where the suppliers discussed and evaluated their projects with all partners, representing a large share of the semiconductor community.

We have also been expanding the supplier hub concept through a deeper involvement of material suppliers. These will prove a cornerstone of the hub, as many advances we need for scaling to the next nodes will be based on material innovations.

Enabling the Internet-Of-Everything

I hold great optimism for the industry. The last years, the success of mobile devices has fueled the demand for semiconductor-based products. These mobile applications will continue to stimulate data consumption, going from 4G to 5G as consumers clamor for greater data availability, immediacy, and access. Beyond the traditional computing and communications applications loom new markets, collectively called the ‘Internet of Everything.’

In addition, nanoelectronics will enable disruptive innovations in healthcare to monitor, measure, analyze, predict and prevent illnesses. Wearable devices have already proven themselves in encouraging healthier lifestyles. The industry’s challenge is now to ensure that the data delivered via personal devices meet medical quality standards. In that frame, our R&D efforts will continue to focus on ultra-low-power multi-sensor platforms.

While there are many facets to the inflection point puzzle, the answers of the industry begin to take shape. The cost of finding new solutions will keep on rising. Individual companies carry ever larger risks if their choices prove wrong. But through closer collabo- ration, companies can share that risk while developing solutions, exploring and creating new technologies, shorten times to market, and be ready to bring a new generation of products to a waiting world. The industry may indeed stand at an inflection point, but the future is bright. Innovation cannot be stifled. And collaboration remains the consensus of an industry focused on the next new thing. Today, IC does not just stand for Integrated Circuit, it indeed calls for Innovation and Collaboration.

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