Thu, Mar 14, 2019 - Page 11 News List

Obscure Japanese firm driving chipmaking advances

Bloomberg

After two decades in development, chipmakers are making a costly bet on a technology that will cram even more transistors onto silicon. Their success might hinge on a little-known company in the suburbs of Tokyo.

Lasertec Corp is the world’s sole maker of equipment that tests glass squares slightly bigger than a CD case that act as a stencil for chip designs.

By shining light through the squares, circuits smaller than the width of a few strands of DNA are imprinted onto silicon wafers in a process called lithography. These templates have to be perfect: Even a tiny defect can make every single chip in a batch unusable.

Consumers take it for granted that gadgets will keep getting slimmer, more powerful and cheaper, but the chip companies are running out of ways to etch ever-smaller circuit patterns onto silicon.

After years of setbacks, the industry has settled on extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, which uses plasma as the light source to draw lines smaller than 7-nanometers. That is the size used in Apple Inc’s A12 Bionic chip featured in the iPhone XS and XR.

In 2017, Yokohama, Japan-based Lasertec solved the final piece of the puzzle when it created a machine that can test blank EUV masks for internal flaws, giving it a monopoly. The company’s stock has tripled since then.

Lasertec has already received orders totaling ¥4 billion (US$35.9 million) for machines that test EUV blanks, president Osamu Okabayashi said.

The company might see additional sales as soon as this summer, depending on how quickly Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC, 台積電) and Samsung Electronics Co ramp up mass production, he said.

Lasertec on Tuesday closed 5.2 percent higher in Tokyo trading, the biggest gain since the start of this month.

“We spent six years developing this equipment,” Okabayashi said in an interview. “At this point, it’s become an industry standard and it would be very difficult for somebody else to enter the space.”

An EUV mask, a sandwich of about 80 alternating layers of silicon and molybdenum, can fetch as much as US$100,000.

Only two companies — glassmakers Hoya Corp and AGC Inc, both based in Japan — manufacture the blanks.

Lasertec’s machines can spot problems early on, which is critical to making the technology cost competitive.

“For EUV, masks have to be perfect,” Okabayashi said.

EUV lithography is so complex and expensive that only TSMC and Samsung have said that they will use it to move to 7-nanometer chipmaking.

Intel Corp has delayed its introduction, while difficulties in making EUV economically viable have prompted GlobalFoundries Inc to reportedly abandon it altogether.

Samsung has said that the move lets it use chip area 40 percent more efficiently, improves performance by 20 percent and halves power consumption.

Apple’s 7-nanometer processor is manufactured by TSMC and is specialized for machine-learning applications.

In the past few months, Qualcomm Inc and Huawei Technologies Co (華為) unveiled a 7-nanometer chip that is to power 5G devices.

“It used to be that chip demand was completely dependent on product cycles for personal computers,” Okabayashi said. “But then came smartphones and pretty soon we’ll be able to add AI [artificial intelligence], IoT [Internet of Things] and 5G to the list of applications driving demand.”

It will take a while for the effects from new orders to show up in earnings, because EUV blank testers take about two years to build.

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