Impacts of the Mobile Market Revolution on Process Control in the Semiconductor Industry

Impacts of the Mobile Market Revolution on Process Control in the Semiconductor Industry

Brian TrafasBy Brian Trafas, Ph.D., chief marketing officer, KLA-Tencor Corporation

It is clear that the accelerating pace of growth and the propensity for rapid change in the mobility market has fundamentally transformed the semiconductor industry. Strong consumer demand for smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices is fueling significant growth within the semiconductor industry, and the rush to develop differentiated and powerful mobile solutions is driving rapid change within the entire ecosystem.

More functionality, higher integration at the chip level, smaller product form factors, lower power requirements, downward cost pressures and bigger, brighter screens are just some of the more obvious trends that are driving capital investment, process technologies and operations methods in the semiconductor industry.  At the same time, new advances in semiconductor technology are driving an increased pace of innovation within the mobile device market.

At the macro level, mobility market requirements are also driving a shift toward the fab-less design model that uses semiconductor foundries for production.  Faster innovation cycles and the growing use of licensed IP content, such as ARM processor cores, are making it more advantageous in many cases to separate design from production.   Fabless companies such as Apple, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Broadcom, SanDisk and Mediatek are at the center of these changes.   While this is a positive trend for the industry and innovation, it also presents some additional challenges in terms of unifying end-to-end processes and ensuring optimal yields that conform to the design intent.

From a process control and yield management perspective, the mobility revolution has some very significant implications, regardless of whether the design and fab processes are in-house or separated.  Accelerated design, introduction and ramp-to-revenue schedules require process control solutions that can lead the way to deliver yield targets, even as new semiconductor technologies are being introduced in parallel with new mobile product generations.  Missed yield targets can result in a significant increase in costs, lost revenue and future business opportunities for semiconductor manufacturers.

Mobility demands are driving increased complexity throughout the semiconductor ecosystem, which results in more difficulty in achieving yield ramps.  Smaller feature sizes require better defect detection and more accurate metrology and new materials used in processing create new defects and measurement challenges.   On the process side, complex lithography (multiple patterning and the future implementation of EUV), more critical interconnect layers, and the move from 2D to 3D gate and memory structures are simultaneously complicating the process control challenges and adding an additional level of complexity.

KLA-Tencor figure 1 

Figure 1 - Mobility Driving Increased Complexity

Defect detection and metrology control amid these rising levels of design and process complexity is critical for achieving yield targets, which means that process control tool performance needs to actually improve faster than the underlying semiconductor technologies.

KLA-Tencor Figure 2

Figure 2 - Defect and Yield Targets Driving Metrology Performance

Another major factor that can impact process control requirements is the increase or maintenance of a larger die size for the semiconductor devices that form the heart of new-generation Smartphones and tablets.  When die sizes increase, it means that simply maintaining the same defect density will no longer be sufficient.  For every doubling of the die size, the number of die on a given wafer size is cut in half.  Therefore, merely maintaining the same defect density and yielded die level will necessitate a doubling of the number of wafer starts to achieve the same production output.

For example, the evolution of a popular mobile device processor shows that even though design rules are shrinking, the need to increase processor performance drives a larger die size.  The second generation of this processor was built with a 45nm design rule and was approximately 70mm2, while subsequent generations of the processor increased in size to ~100mm2 and ~125mm2, even when moving to a smaller design rule (32nm).  An increase in die size from 70mm2 to 125mm2 means that the die per wafer would drop from approximately 810 to 465.    Assuming the same defect density, for a production output objective of 100 million good parts, this would mean approximately 214 thousand additional wafer starts would be required for the larger die size (See figure 3).  At a cost of ~$3,000 to $4,000 per wafer, the impact of lower yields can drive manufacturing costs into the hundreds of millions -to billions of dollars. 

KLA-Tencor Figure 3

Figure 3 - Larger Die Sizes Require Lower Defect Densities

While many in the semiconductor industry would point to larger 450mm wafer sizes as a partial solution to addressing these cost/yield challenges, the reality is that transitioning to 450mm wafers presents a whole new set of metrology, inspection and process control challenges as well.  In order to achieve 450mm productivity projections, M&I equipment will need to lead by maintaining wafer flatness, surface roughness, and other key factors at incoming, as well as providing larger stages for full-wafer pattern inspection throughput and driving down defect densities to improve die yields per wafer.  With more cost at stake per 450mm wafer, the role of process control will become even more critical.

The shift toward fab-less design and licensed IP has also opened opportunities for new process control solutions that include built-in design-awareness capabilities to help smooth the transition to the foundry and to support a faster yield ramp.

All of these challenges need to be addressed within the context of ever-shortening product life cycles within the consumer marketplace.   Time to market has become a make-or-break factor for mobile device makers.  Being late to the market window not only can significantly impact profitability, in some cases missing market expectations can irreparably harm a company’s reputation. 

While these market expectation pressures get a lot of press coverage and buzz in the end-product arena, the actual pressures to perform ripple all the way down the semiconductor ecosystem.  If suppliers are not able to meet the higher complexities, faster introductions, yield ramps and cost targets required for each new generation of mobile devices, they will be out of the game – and out of business.  With the pace of change only getting faster and the stakes higher, process control providers actually must stay ahead of the game to assure that their customers can stay in it.

Brian Trafas serves as the chief marketing officer of KLA-Tencor, where he is responsible for overseeing marketing initiatives, product development, marketing communications, market research, and the development of marketing talent. With two decades of experience in the semiconductor capital equipment industry, with an emphasis on process control, Trafas is a sought-after author having contributed more than 30 technical papers. He has written extensively about CD process control, advanced patterned wafer inspection methodologies and the application of scanning probe microscopes. Currently, Trafas is the chairman of the SEMI North America Advisory Board, leading multiple constituencies in the advancement of semiconductor technology.

September 3, 2013