Blossom watching in Japan
When most industry watchers think about the scale of Japanese companies in the semiconductor manufacturing supply chain, large companies come to mind, which in turn are often divisions of even larger companies. Smaller, more-agile operations seem to be relatively few and far between. Until recently, much of the untapped knowledge and underdeveloped talent remained hidden from view, other than periodic budding within the context of big companies or the blossoming of those rare Japanese flowers—the spin-off and the start-up.
On my trip to Japan in early December, I had a chance to visit with
companies at both ends of the size spectrum, from some of the largest players to small companies trying to make a name for themselves in the regional and global microelectronics fabrication communities.
After zooming out of Tokyo Station on the shinkansen to Kumagaya and then connecting to the local train to Kagohara, we taxied to Nikon’s excimer stepper lithography equipment plant, the largest of its kind in the world. When we arrived, my guides, Tsunesaburo Uemura and Andy Hazelton, briefed me on the corporate and litho-specific fronts and showed me some cool old cameras, contact aligners, stepper lenses, and other Nikon artifacts in the lobby displays. Then it was time to suit up and hit the factory floor.
Although I was not permitted to visit the production building where the immersion systems were being manufactured, I did see the impressive lens assembly area and another section where many “dry” KrF and ArF systems (and one lonely “wet” tool, as it turns out) were being staged. It had been years since my last visit to a stepper factory, so I was struck once again by the mechanical and optical engineering prowess required to put together these massively complex systems, now capable of 7–8-nm alignment accuracy and 55–65-nm resolution. The production line was running close to full capacity, with nearly every assembly bay occupied—healthy news for both Nikon and the chipmaking community in general, since the lithography sector remains a bellwether of the industry’s economic well-being.
On the bonsai end of the corporate continuum sits Philtech, a young, hungry outfit that just moved to larger offices in the Kojimachi area of central Tokyo. Founded by Fujitsu veteran Yuji Furumura in May 2001, the company characterizes itself as a new kind of semiconductor process development provider. Philtech specializes in custom resist-processed test wafers and analytical/consulting services but does so without any cleanroom facilities of its own. The company’s wafer lots travel among a network of outsource fab, lab, and OEM partners and customers for processing. Through this approach, Philtech pools its resources and keeps its overhead down.
Over a buffet lunch in the New Otani’s rotating Chinese restaurant, Furumura-san, Koji Morihiro, and Naomi Mura explained Philtech’s business model, occasionally distracted by the crystal-clear sight of Mt. Fuji’s snow-draped cone to the west. One of the company’s key differentiators is its access to the proximity x-ray stepper at the Mitsubishi advanced technology R&D center in Hiroshima. With this unique system, Philtech can offer test wafers with hole sizes down to 20 nm. Most of its customers come from the tool (AMAT was its first client, TEL its biggest), materials, consortia, and university sectors, along with a few chipmakers.
The company’s product suite includes 200- and 300-mm charge-up monitors, as well as ultra-fine-pattern and blanket film wafers. “The technology is particularly useful for developing companies to tap into the latest processes and technologies,” Morihiro-san told me.
Philtech’s “de facto standard test wafers” offer a solution for OEMs and materials houses whose customers “want them to deliver processed wafers as proof of unit-process concepts.” With the flurry of new Japanese players jumping into the CMP slurry and pad market, Furumura-san and his team believe the Philtech approach offers a way for these companies to get high-quality, standardized data to their potential chipmaker customers more quickly.
While corporate sumos like Nikon continue their leadership roles in several key industry segments, the emergence of Philtech and other entrepreneurial innovators demonstrates a positive evolutionary process in the island nation’s chipmaking and microelectronics industries. As the Japanese proverb goes, “there is nothing that cannot be achieved by firm imagination.”
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© 2007 Tom Cheyney
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