SEMICON sinks; Intersolar soars

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--It came as no surprise to attendees of SEMICON West (www.semiconwest.org) that the semiconductor market is still depressed; many exhibitors were packing up their booths even before the three-day exhibit closed on Thursday, July 16.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--It came as no surprise to attendees of SEMICON West (www.semiconwest.org) that the semiconductor market is still depressed; many exhibitors were packing up their booths even before the three-day exhibit closed on Thursday, July 16. “This is the quietest show I’ve seen in 24 years at Semicon West,” said Chris Moore, president and CEO of semiconductor and photovoltaic (PV) metrology company Semilab USA (Billerica, MA). But Intersolar North America (www.intersolar.us)--collocated with SEMICON West for the second year in a row--more than doubled its floor space, with exhibitors increasing from 210 in 2008 to 444 in 2009. Scott Smith, Sr. public relations manager for SEMI (www.semi.org; conference organizer for SEMICON West), was not at all surprised by the growth of the Intersolar conference. And while he acknowledged that the number of exhibitors for SEMICON West 2009 was down from 2008 (1151), Smith did say that SEMICON West registrations were only down 4% compared to last year. Official attendance figures are not yet available.

“To be fair, no one was expecting Semicon West to be much of a party this year,” said Tom Hausken, director of components research at Strategies Unlimited (Mountain View, CA) in his latest Opto Insider Blog entry at www.optoiq.com. “After all, SEMI just announced that tool sales will drop 50% this year to the unspeakable low of $14 billion. (It was $43 billion in 2007),” Hausken lamented.

While there wasn’t much traffic at the SEMICON West North or South exhibit halls, the 80 hours of on-the-show-floor TechXPOTs (“tech spots”) were typically standing-room only. Attendees seemed eager to hear that new technologies would lead the sinking semiconductor market to an eventual recovery. A crowd of nearly 200 gathered on Wednesday, July 15 at 2 pm to hear Yan Borodovsky, Sr. fellow and director of advanced lithography in Intel’s (Santa Clara, CA) Technology and Manufacturing Group, speak on “Lithography 2009: Overview of Opportunities.” Borodovsky essentially explained that it was possible that neither extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography nor nanoimprint lithography would be mature enough to meet the challenges of even the 2009–2011 22 nm node.

Borodovsky was proud to note that current 32 nm node (feature pitch 112.5 nm) chips were easily fabricated using 193 nm immersion lithography. He warned that if EUV (which continues to stand a better chance of success than nanoimprint due to that technology’s chip defect rate) did not become cost-effective by 2011, that it could possibly miss the boat in terms of being a viable option for the 22 nm node and beyond. Even though EUV can serve both logic and more-defect-tolerant memory chip markets, Borodovsky still thinks that Pitch Division (PD), a means of continuing to use 193 nm immersion lithography in conjunction with special tooling, computational lithography, and improved materials and more masks, could still be an answer even for the 7 nm node (28 nm pitch) expected to be required in 2015–2017.

Growth cyclical or just cyclical?

For years, semiconductor capital equipment companies have watched the semiconductor chip markets ride a cyclical wave, but with an underlying growth component. Unfortunately, the consensus of panel members on the “Bulls and Bears Panel--Industry Trends and Current Valuation Drivers” held July 16 in the Novellus Theatre, was that the semiconductor capital-equipment market was at this point a pure cyclical, helped in previous years by the advent of flash memory, but with future gains possible only for companies that have a mergers & acquisitions (M&A)-friendly management structure and reduce OPEX (operating expenditures) to levels of 20% rather than the current 40–60% in most companies. All panelists agreed however, that the introduction of some new, unforeseen technology like flash memory could always change the equation.

Tim Arcuri, managing director, Citi Investment Research and Analysis, was more bullish than most, calling semiCAP (semiconductor capital equipment) markets a growth cyclical, but with earnings continuing to decline barring M&A. Arcuri felt that even though the markets will grow somewhat in 2010, he sees more layoffs and product cuts ahead. Satya Kumar, semi market researcher with Credit Suisse Securities, went so far as to say that every peak in the semiconductor market “has been a bubble,” and also agreed that consolidation is one of the few ways semiCAP companies could make money in the current climate. C. J. Muse, semi analyst for Barclays Capital, says the semiCAP outlook for 2010 spells recovery, with 2011 looking better; however, growth will not be nearly as good as the 2006/2007 bubble, and he doesn’t share the view of a strong future uptick by many semiCAP enthusiasts.

And sadly, the reason for the lack of profit in the semiconductor industry, said Brett Hodess, managing director at Merrill Lynch, is that semiCAP manufacturing efficiencies are too high; semiCAP companies continue to develop equipment that keeps up with Moore’s law and the expanding computational needs of globalization all as price drops continue. And even though Arcuri agrees that the hardware side will continue to suffer, he sees a shift in growth to companies working on the software side. He sees the money in companies that not only manufacture chips, but manufacture chips that improve ways in which consumers interact with the devices that contain those chips.

The question and answer session at the end of the Bulls and Bears Panel was just as lively as the panel itself. Arcuri responded to an audience member about the solar industry that even though he sees significant growth prospects, the problem with solar is that it will be a profitless prosperity. When asked what a small semiCAP company should do in this economy, Kumar said they should merge or be acquired. And regarding the solar market, panelists agreed that even though pricing is in a death spiral, solar financing is at an all-time high.

Technology innovations and revelations

Because many semiconductor companies are jumping into the PV market, many of the new products were applicable to both semiconductor and solar markets. For example, Veeco (Santa Barbara, CA) exhibited its relatively new (May 2009) Confocal Metrology (VCM) Optical Profiler Systems that combine confocal technology and nanometer-scale height measurements with the simplicity of a conventional microscope. These VCM systems can perform non-contact 3-D sample characterization of semiconductor wafer features, but can also analyzer the high curvature and steep slopes of nanostructured solar-cell surfaces or measure semi-transparent PV films. Also, Precitec Optronik GmbH (Rodgau, Germany) released its CHRocodile S - Optical Sensor for non-contact distance and thickness measurement of semiconductor or PV products.

Applied Materials (AMAT; Santa Clara, CA) displayed the world’s largest solar panel--a 5.7 m2 monster manufactured using its Sunfab production equipment boasting $1/Watt production cost by 2010. Concentrix solar (Freiburg, Germany) announced that its commercial power plants in Spain are consistently delivering system efficiencies of 23% AC for their concentrator power plants--almost double the electrical power yield of conventional PV power plants. And Raytex Corporation (Tokyo, Japan) introduced its RPS-1000/2000 laser scriber systems that feature megahertz-pulse picosecond lasers for the scribing of thin-film solar panels, claiming they offer photo ionization of thin films rather than thermal ablation.

In a Thursday afternoon Innovation Exchange presentation in an alcove near the Intersolar North America exhibit hall, Rainbow Solar presented its Super PV electronic solution that somehow increases solar-panel output 60–200%. Because it’s not a photonic solution, it is not really applicable to our Laser Focus World readers. However, check out our other PennWell brands that focus on renewable energy: Photovoltaics World (www.pvworld.com) and Renewable Energy World (www.renewableenergyworld.com) if you are curious about all things PV-related. Also debuting at SEMICON West was a film on microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) entitled “MEMS: Making Micro Machines” by Silicon Run Productions. I sat rather uncomfortably in the very small SEMI Theater on Wednesday, July 15 to watch it. The room was packed, and it was evident that like solar PV, MEMS technology represents an emerging growth area for the semiconductor industry.

--Gail Overton


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