Semicon West 2006: from the lab to the fab.
As concrete evidence of this, the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials Institute (SEMI), which organizes the exposition, released its midyear consensus forecast for semiconductor equipment sales. Although the overall market fell 11.4% in 2005, the forecast for this year predicts an increase of 18% to $38.81 billion. This is not merely an idle forecast, for much of that increase has already been felt by suppliers during the first half of this year. For 2007, the total market is only expected to increase slightly, followed by double-digit growth for 2008. By 2009, the total market for semiconductor equipment is expected to reach $44 billion.
In international markets, the Chinese market tumbled more than 50% in 2005, but is expected to rebound in 2006 with 78% growth, the greatest of any region. The only geographic market that continued growing in 2005 was South Korea, which posted an impressive 26% increase, helping it to briefly surpass Taiwan and North America to become the second largest regional market for semiconductor equipment, following Japan. For 2006, the North American and Taiwanese markets are forecast to grow more than 20%, which will put them back ahead of Korea. In the long-term, the Chinese market will achieve the greatest average growth, but will remain less than half the size of the Korean market in 2009.
Wafer processing, the largest individual segment and the one most closely allied to analytical instrumentation, is expected to grow slightly faster than the overall semiconductor equipment market, with 20% growth in 2006. This is mainly due to the ongoing construction and upgrading of semiconductor wafer fabrication facilities. New tools are being called for as the standard wafer size continues to migrate from 200 mm to 300 mm. At the same time, the feature size on the chips continues to shrink from 130 nm to 90 nm to 65nm, which is the smallest commercially available feature size at the present time. However, Intel and AMD have each produced 45 nm chips and full-scale production of them is expected by 2007. Development of the 32 nm technology node is active, but on the distant horizon as far as production is concerned.
The focus of Semicon West has definitely shifted further towards the manufacturing process rather than the laboratory. While many booths featured impressive automated tools and components for wafer handling, inspection and processing, few vendors of laboratory instruments had their wares on display. Among the exceptions were Dionex, JASCO, Thermo Electron and the major vendors of optical microscopes. Even at these booths, however, the emphasis appeared to be on process instrumentation. Although the reunification of the tradeshow seems to have decreased the importance of lab in relation to fab, instrument vendors expect excellent growth in the semiconductor market.
With more room in the convention hall, Semicon West was also able to expand its Technology Innovation Showcase (TIS) this year. Some of the selected winners were offering tools and components of an analytical nature. Perhaps the most impressive was the Looking Glass helium ion microscope from ALIS. Similar to an electron microscope, the LG-2 uses helium ions rather than electrons as the charged species that probe surfaces. The use of heavier helium ions provides better contrast and better depth of field than standard electron microscopes. The first unit has been built and the company expects to ship three this year at a price of approximately $1.65 million.
Another intriguing TIS winner this year was Deep Photonics, which is commercializing a high power solid-state laser system as an OEM product to semiconductor suppliers. The laser operates in the deep UV (266 nm) making it suitable for inspection and etching applications with very small semiconductor features. But the main advantage is that the solid-state technology provides a stable, long-lived laser without any compromise in power (up to 2.5 kW peak power in pulsed mode). Test units of the pulsed system are now available at a price of about $175,000, while the continuous wave version should be ready by September.
TIS winner XRadia has sold several of its MicroXCT x-ray microscopes, since its introduction in October of last year. The system can create high resolution 3D computed tomographs of electronic devices for inspection and review. The system also has potential applications in the 3D imaging of biological samples.