TORONTO — Even as electronics companies strive to improve the designs of their semiconductor products and printed circuit boards, suppliers of manufacturing equipment contribute just as much innovation to improve successive generations of ICs and PCBs.
Lam Research is a vendor many electronics manufacturers turn to for new processes and tools to reduce their cost per bit from node to node. One of its latest offerings is aimed specifically at delivering better etching for current DRAM and future NAND flash memory devices. Vantex is a dielectric etch technology designed specifically for the company’s Sense.i platform, designed with chipmakers building 3D memory devices in mind — in particular, those providing memory devices for smartphones, graphics cards, and solid-state storage drives, said Thomas Bondur, the company’s corporate vice president of product marketing and business development for its Etch Product Group.
To reduce costs, the company is increasing device dimensions vertically and reducing critical dimensions laterally — this requires pushing etch aspect ratios in 3D NAND and DRAM to new levels.
As wafer fabs continue to get more and more expensive, he said, optimizing the use of space continues to be a priority for memory makers who have put pressure on suppliers such as Lam. They want more capability, more productivity, and more efficient use of the space as opening these memory mega fabs is getting into the multi-billion-dollar range. “We went off and made the decision to redesign our platform and chambers from the ground up, which is what drove the Sense.i platform,” said Bondur.
The platform has evolved from a radial one to a linear, side-by-side one with 10 chambers. This new design enables the use of higher than previously available radio frequency (RF) power levels so customers can etch high aspect ratio features at high throughput and achieve cost scaling, he said.
Meanwhile, advancements in RF pulsing technology deliver the tight critical dimensions control required to improve device performance. Lam is seeing new aspect ratios be applied on devices, and it requires more power and control to be able to drill deep and precise holes, said Bondur, as well as enabling customers to yield more and more devices across an entire 300mm wafer. “And we actually did it in a more efficient footprint than our six-chamber platform.”
The company has focused on making preventative maintenance on the chambers easier too, recognizing that customers are trying to fit more equipment into a physical space. But optimizing space in the wafer fab is not the only concern for memory makers, said Bondur. Lam’s Sense.i etch platform also includes what the company has dubbed “Equipment Intelligence,” which enables customers to collect data from hundreds of sensors monitoring systems and process performance. This allows them to utilize data much more efficiently so they can improve both on-wafer and wafer-to-wafer performance.
As etching and RF technology innovations become more complex, there’s a need for more data and better control of that data, said Bondur, so customers can quickly develop a recipe, and more importantly, be able to match them from chamber to chamber. “Being able to ramp in volume manufacturing is becoming important, so data is a key part of enabling customers to ramp up and yield faster so they can drive their business.”
Orbotech Ltd. is also addressing efficiency for electronics companies with a focus on enabling high quality, high yield, and cost-effective mass production of ultra-thin flexible printed circuits (FPCs), which is being driven by some of the use cases for memory devices that Lam is addressing — smartphones, medical devices, wearables, and automotive use cases
Just as smartphones are hungry for memory, Orbotech has found itself heavily involved in the PCB part of the business, as it touches nearly every component within a smartphone, including IC substrate and advanced packaging, said Yair Alcobi, president of Orbotech’s PCB division. Although last year wasn’t a great year for the automotive industry, the electrification of cars and more electronic devices within the car means more demands for PCBs in this segment as it recovers and ramps up. “The expectations are that these trends of having more and more electronics pour into cars will remain and will further drive the electronics and the PCB industries in the years to come.”
In the meantime, the growing demand for 5G mobile phones is translating into a demand for more flex PCBs, he said, which is why it recently brought to market a new UV laser drilling solution and a new direct imaging solution —both operating on different platforms — to support roll-to-roll applications.
Its Infinitum platform is a roll-to-roll direct imaging solution for mass production of flex PCBs, which combines drum direct imaging (DDI), large scan optics (LSO), and multi-wave lasers to improve yields without sacrificing quality, said Alcobi. It’s also addressing customers’ desire for something more compact, as well as environmentally friendly. With DDI, printing is done on a drum, rather than table, and the Orbotech technology addresses one of the key challenges of materials handling — driving a lot of material through the roll to control the tension and thickness without adding any kinds of distortion to the materials through the process. “The infrastructure and the architecture of the technology enables the printing on top of the drum in such a way that all this is done very smoothly while keeping the quality intact by delivering very stringent lines and spaces.”
Orbotech’s Infinitum also consciously maximizes customers’ available space by packing everything into one box so the overall footprint is small, said Alcobi. Similarly, its Apeiron platform is designed for high-speed UV laser drilling for roll-to-roll (R2R) and sheet-by-sheet panel manufacturing of FPCs so that customers can manufacture at high throughputs while maintaining high quality and accuracy — and can be used for a wide range of drilling applications, including blind vias (BV), through-hole vias (THV) and routing. This is achieved by leveraging its existing Multi-Path Technology, he said, which splits the beam into four different pathways, and combines with its recently developed Roll Inside and Continuous Beam Uniformity (CBU) technologies. “We have one light source, which we are able to split into four heads. While doing so we are enabling very efficient usage of the energy through the drilling.”
The CBU technology basically assures that a quality assurance process takes place during the drilling. “Measurement and assuring that the drilling is done in the right location at the right accuracy, without any deviations from the original plans,” said Alcobi. Orobotech’s R2R technology not only contributes to the compactness of the solution, but the exchange of different rolls can be done quickly and conveniently.
Both companies’ manufacturing solutions are driven by the industry need to drive their costs down as they pursue their respective roadmaps. Lam’s Bondur said the global economy seems to have “an insatiable appetite” for memory. “We do our best to try and get in front of it.” The company has been able to evolve its platforms in an iterative way, “not necessarily to outpace our customers, but to be ready for them when they need it.”
Orbotech’s Infinitum and Apeiron reflect decades of investment in meeting the PCB manufacturing requirements of customers, said Alcobi. More and more flex circuitries are being put into smartphones, as well as other devices such as wearables, all of which require robust and efficient manufacturing with reasonable yields without compromising quality, he said. “There are plenty of drivers for flex PCB boards and we don’t expect it to stop in the years to come.”
Gary Hilson is a general contributing editor with a focus on memory and flash technologies for EE Times.