new year dawns
new year 2005, or 4702, if you're celebrating the Year of the Rooster
on the Chinese calendar. Rather than offer a pathetic attempt at resolutions
that would likely be broken before the next moon rises, I'd like to comment
on a few items of interest during this transitional time.
trying to get a sense of which way the economic or technological winds
are blowing, some metrics are more useful than others. One perennial favorite
is the quarterly silicon-wafer-area shipment data reports provided by
SEMI. My new fave measurement tool—new to me anyway—is total
worldwide pulse usage. Tracked by Cymer, the leading lithography laser-source
provider, it works like this: If you know how many times the lasers pulsed,
you have a pretty clear idea how many wafers are being processed through
the scanners and steppers. I know of few public production metrics that
offer as intimate a snapshot of fab capacity utilization at a given time.
During the company's annual symposium held in conjunction with Semicon
Japan in early December, Cymer head-honcho Bob Akins revealed that average
worldwide pulse consumption had dropped 11% during the previous two months.
He noted that the decreased pulse rate had eaten up any gains that had
been achieved during the previous two quarters, revealing a clear drop
in capacity utilization.
the latest update of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors
includes no significant deviations from the 2003 edition, there are minor
and moderate tweaks aplenty. One eye-catching item is the next wafer-size
change—to 450 mm—lying in wait on the roadmap in 2012. Since
that's a mere seven years away, I question the wisdom and sanity of gearing
up the industry for what could be an even more painful and expensive transition—if
that's possible—than the on-again/off-again/ on-again debacle of
the multibillion-dollar move from 200 mm to 300 mm. Think back to about
1997 and remember how far along 300-mm development work was at that point,
both with the wafers themselves and in the equipment and subsystems community,
and compare it with where things are now for 450 mm.
call me skeptical about that 2012 deadline would be putting it mildly.
Perhaps a dose of wafer-size realism will be administered when the ITRS
gets its full biennial makeover later this year. For more on the wafer-size
transition and other aspects of the latest roadmap update, please check
out contributing editor John Conroy's news
Insights' just-released McClean Report 2005 forecasts that China
will become the largest regional IC market by this year, barely edging
out Japan and the United States in total chip consumption. But it's common
knowledge that Chinese-based semiconductor production supplies only a
fraction of the homegrown demand, and the new report says that won't change
much over the next five years. When it comes to domestic Chinese chipmakers,
however, SMIC reigns supreme, going from start-up status less than five
years ago to running hundreds of thousands of annual wafer starts and
grabbing the number-four position on IC Insights' foundry rankings. But
if you believe some of TSMC's accusations in Terril Yue Jones's fascinating
story headlined "Spying Case Underscores Rivalry of Asian Chip Firms"
in the January 3 edition of the Los Angeles Times, part of the
rapid success of the Shanghai-based manufacturer can be linked to theft
of the Taiwan-based foundry giant's trade secrets.
two companies are locked in a bitter industrial-espionage court case in
California and proceedings before the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Jones cites numerous "conspicuous clues" of alleged wrongdoing. A TSMC
manager at one of the company's Tainan fabs asked colleagues to "provide
electronic and hard copies of all improvements made during the past quarter
for thin-film processes," then that same manager left abruptly a week
later and jumped to SMIC. In another revelation, a SMIC worker "estimated
that 90% of the process his company used to make 180-nm chips was copied
from TSMC." The article also contains details of the exploits of one Katy
Liu, a former TSMC employee who was convicted in absentia in Taiwan in
2003 of stealing company secrets for SMIC over a six-month period in 2002.
SMIC denies any wrongdoing, calling TSMC charges a "smear campaign." The
intellectual-property brouhaha between the two rivals will likely continue
in the courts and before the trade commission for months, if not years.
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