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Rooster crows,
new year dawns

Happy 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.

When 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.

Although 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.

To 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 feature.

IC 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.

The 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.

Tom Cheyney

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