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Spring cleaning

Spring cleaning means many things across many cultures, although we in the States tend to focus on clearing out the garage, shampooing the carpets, putting away the winter linens, or getting rid of those pesky New Year’s resolutions. But it can also be an intellectual exercise, a time to examine—or jettison—some ideas gathering dust in the ol’ noggin. Although I may not get around to all those household chores this season, I do want to clear out some items from my editorial closet.

After years of speculation and hand wringing, the consolidation of an important semiconductor equipment sector has finally gained some momentum. The metrology/inspection/process control space has seen the recent announcement and finalization of several acquisitions and mergers. After one of the most protracted legal maneuvering periods in memory, August and Rudolph have finally become, simply, Rudolph.

According to information the company shared with me earlier this year, the merged entity jumps to number four in the market, behind leaders KLA-Tencor, Hitachi, and Applied Materials. Speaking of KLA-T, its proposed buyout of ADE pumps up its position of primacy, creating a powerhouse with added share in wafermaking and other areas not currently dominated by the parent to be.

One shouldn’t ignore Nanometrics’ open wallet either. The film/CD/overlay metrology company bounced back from being a spurned suitor of August and grabbed up Accent Optical and Soluris in 1Q06. One also can’t ignore the steep corporate-culture-meshing learning curve likely to be faced by Nano and its new units. As for the prospects of KLA-T and ADE blending smoothly, one can point to the KLA and Tencor merger back in May 1997, often hailed as one of the most successful marriages in industry history. One also can ponder the “what-if” of called-off merger/acquisitions activities involving “nanotech tool” company FEI if it had combined with Veeco back in 2003 or more recently with Carl Zeiss SMT.

With all these newly recombinant corporate organisms, one has to ask: Will the semiconductor and MEMS manufacturers, research outfits, and other customers really benefit and be better served than before? Will there be any improvement in the overall signal-to-noise ratio, both figuratively and literally?

One chipmaker that honors its vendors each year around the vernal equinox is Intel, with its prestigious Supplier Continuous Quality Improvement and second-tier Preferred Quality Supplier awards. Other than these plaudits, Intel rarely mentions a tool, materials, or other vendor by name. Those self-same vendors often feel like they’ll be struck down by the Wrath of Craig if they utter the word Intel in a discussion about their customers. But what about those companies that supply numero uno and didn’t make the list? Is there a confidential list of Marginal Quality Supplier “awards” we just don’t know about?

Maybe Applied and KLA-T could shed some light on that.

Speaking of light—or at least optics—I have a leftover grumble from SPIE Microlithography. A “paper” on nanotechnology’s near- and long-term impact on IC processing reflected an all-too-frequent phenomenon among nano-type presentations: the blending of interesting science with blatant infomercial tendencies. The culprit was John Randall of Zyvex, a nano company that actually generates revenues and says it expects to become profitable soon.

After offering a nice overview of legit nanotech already going on in the chip world—near-atomic-scale features, atomic force microscopes in the fabs, CMP slurries with nanoparticles, etc.—he launched into a spiel on nanoprobing, citing chapter and verse about why Zyvex’s own tool rocks. Randall then wheeled back into some thought-provoking musings on the longer-term impacts of things nano, such as full-wafer probing (gee, who’s tool might do that?), atomic-scale CD standards, atomic-layer epitaxy, and other atomically precise manufacturing methods that will “treat matter as if it were digital.”

It would have been nice to Tivo the juicy parts of his talk and eliminate the advertisements.

Tom Cheyney

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