Driven by rising demand for thinner wafers and stronger die, dicing technology is evolving. Reaching more than $100M in 2015, the dicing equipment market will double by 2020-2021 according to the Yole Développement report, Thin Wafer Processing and Dicing Equipment Market.
Yet at the same time, thin wafers are creating new challenges of significant interest in the dicing equipment industry. Yole Développement had the opportunity to discuss the market, its evolution and challenges with Abdul Lateef, CEO, and Thierry Lazerand, Business Development Director, of Plasma-Therm.
Yole Développement (YD): Can you introduce Plasma-Therm’s product line, its history and current activity?
Plasma-Therm (PT): Plasma-Therm is a U.S.-based manufacturer of plasma etch, deposition, and advanced packaging equipment for specialty semiconductor and nanotechnology markets.
Since 1974, Plasma-Therm has been an innovator in plasma-processing technologies. The company now holds more than 150 U.S. and foreign patents for plasma processes and equipment inventions.
Recent Plasma-Therm innovations include the industry's first plasma dicing-on-tape solution. The Singulator® MDS-100 was introduced in 2013 and quickly earned repeat orders because of the advantages of plasma-based die singulation.
Plasma-Therm's plasma-processing and advanced-packaging solutions are used in volume production of a variety of semiconductor devices. Plasma-Therm is committed to the development of systems and services that meet the diverse requirements of our global customer base. The success of this commitment is recognized by VLSIresearch Customer Satisfaction awards, which Plasma-Therm has received every year since 2000.
YD: Which market(s) mainly drive(s) Plasma-Therm’s revenue today?
PT: We consider the high growth areas of compound semiconductors and sensors as our primary focus areas. However, Advanced Packaging is quickly becoming a significant growth driver for the company.
YD: As one of the leading suppliers for plasma dicing, can you explain how Plasma-Therm is positioned in the semiconductor sector?
PT: Our plasma dicing technology is the best solution in the market today because it is done on standard tape frames and tapes, without the need for additional masking steps.
We have several customers in production with the Singulator® in USA, Europe and Asia.
Although IDMs are the primary adopters, we now have completed device qualifications for several fabless companies and their OSAT partners.
YD: What are the competitive advantages of your products?
PT: VERSALINE is a production-proven platform in the compound semiconductor manufacturing sector, combined with decades of process knowledge, which enables our customers to build some of the most challenging devices for the wireless and photonics markets. Sales of our DSE IV Deep Silicon Etch™ systems are growing rapidly and on pace with the growth of the sensor markets.
Vision™ and Apex SLR™ product lines are uniquely suited for the R&D market, as they combine high levels of flexibility with the reliability of a production system. This combination provides the best CoO in the market.
The Singulator® product enjoys a significant competitive advantage in the market due to a combination of three different components: Our IP position for process and equipment through a cross-licensing agreement with ON Semiconductor. This combined IP portfolio presents a formidable barrier to entry into this market. The second component is our leadership in innovation. Plasma-Therm is the only company that can offer PDOT (Plasma Dicing On Tape) solutions. The third component is the partnership with the dicing market-share leader, DISCO, to deliver this technology and support complete plasma dicing process flow solutions to every company interested in taking advantage of this enabling technology.
YD: You are today very well established in the semiconductor market, your positioning is quite unique in this industry. What do you think about the dicing market? Current trends? What are the technology trends for the dicing process in the coming years?
PT: The dicing market has been dominated for many years by blade dicing. With the emergence of thinner wafers and more complex stacks, blade dicing has run into significant roadblocks, which has opened the field to various other techniques.
Although laser dicing provides some advantages over blade dicing, the trends for thinner, smaller and more sensitive devices are driving forces for better techniques. Plasma is capable of dicing the entire wafer at once, delivering superior die strength, sidewall control, and more die per wafer. Unlike mechanical dicing methods, the plasma dicing process is faster as the wafer thickness is reduced, and is not sensitive to the die size. Therefore, plasma dicing is well position to meet the advanced packaging trends for thinner, smaller and complex packaging schemes such as 2.5D and 3D. The capability of dicing with street widths below 5um, without the need for micro-cracking protection, enables significant yield improvements, which reduce cost-per-die and wafer-start requirements. These tremendous cost advantages make plasma dicing very attractive for device manufacturers. In addition, the trend of die deconstruction to optimize manufacturing costs is also leading towards smaller die dimensions, which steers the market towards further adoption of plasma dicing.
The added flexibility in die layout and die shape will enable future device designers to optimize chip form factor to better fit package needs.
YD: What are the next steps of Plasma-Therm growth in the power, MEMS, memory & logic, RFID industry?
PT: For power applications, one of the main reasons to thin the wafers is to reduce the power consumption (R-on), and some of our customers are now using plasma dicing to singulate 50µm thin wafers. The additional motivation comes from the fact that these devices are very small and the street form factor achieved with plasma dicing allows them to add more than 30% more die per wafer compared to current wafer layouts.
GaN on silicon is definitively an area where we expect to see increased interest given how brittle the GaN is and how important the stress control between GaN and silicon is. In MEMS, and sensors applications, where advanced packaging is being adopted, some issues such as delamination of 3D systems (e.g. MEMS above IC) can be avoided with plasma dicing. For demanding applications such as biomedical, using sensors in flexible packages, the stress concentration points at the die corners can create micro cracks and be a yield killer; plasma dicing methods allow shaping the die to eliminate sharp corners and stress-related issues. This in turn enables high reliability of the finish product.
In CMOS (Memory and Logic), the growing demand for advanced packaging, WLP, bare die packaging, and increasing high quality requirement for mobile applications will definitively benefit from the better overall chip quality delivered by plasma dicing.
Especially for memory, where die thickness is approaching 30µm, saw and laser techniques are hitting a brick wall and it is only a matter of time for manufacturers to transition to plasma dicing.
RFID device manufacturing presents an extreme case of price sensitivity. Plasma dicing enables a greater than 25% increase in die per wafer yield, giving the RFID manufacturer a significant competitive advantage. Customers have already qualified our PDOT solution for this application. What is uniquely offered by us for this particular application is the ability to plasma dice these devices with the copper bumps exposed, eliminating the need for a masking step, further enhancing the cost model.
YD: What will be for you the major evolutions of your business in these areas in the coming years?
PT: We continue to monitor the new area of mid-end-of-line market where we believe more and more front-end-type processes will be incorporated in the production of advanced devices and packages. We have the unique combination of being specialty market-focused and having expertise in a wide range of process steps. We expect significant growth as the market realizes the benefits of plasma dicing and ramps production for new devices for silicon-based materials but also for compound semiconductor materials.
Adjacent process steps involving dry clean, surface preparation, or plasma strip will also contribute to our footprint increase in these markets.
YD: Do you think you could be challenged by your competitors in these fields?
PT: It is clear that as the market grows so will competitive forces. We have to continue to innovate to maintain our dominant leadership position. We continue to challenge ourselves to offer leading technologies and products that are well aligned with market needs. The partnership with DISCO illustrates also our commitment to offering fully integrated PDOT-based dicing solutions.
YD: According to you, how do you see the future of your equipment products portfolio?
PT: Plasma-Therm is growing by enforcing its position in the current served markets, expanding the plasma processing solutions to advanced packaging (DBG and PDOT), and by acquiring and integrating more process capabilities – such as the recent acquisition of HDRF and Ion Beam technologies.
YD: Which applications among RFID, power, MEMS, memory & logic do you see a high interest for further growth of Plasma-Therm’s revenue? What changes do you expect in the future?
PT: In the near term, we believe RFID and power will be the highest-growth markets. This is due to the fact that plasma dicing ROI is easier to comprehend because of the significant gain in die count per wafer. This is further enhanced by productivity gains as the market moves to thinner wafers.
In cases of large wafers with large die (such as memory and logic), adoption will be slow despite the current high level of development activities. Die count increase is not the main motivation, but the gain in quality (no chipping) and better stress control are critical factors. We expect this market to see significant growth in the mid-near future once incentives are aligned between fabless, foundries and OSATs.
YD: How does Plasma-Therm compete against Chinese capital as well as foundries like TSMC entering?
PT: The Chinese market is quite large and strategically important to Plasma-Therm as well as all other semiconductor equipment manufacturing companies. We have been involved for many years in the greater China region, wining repeat as well as new orders for R&D and compound semi applications. We currently are experiencing a significant growth in interest for our dicing technology within the foundries and OSATs in this region for dicing of a variety of different chip applications.
YD: Most of the volume production in packaging today is done using 150 mm, 200 mm and 300mm wafer processing infrastructure, however, the industry is very eager to develop a panel based infrastructure in order to further reduce cost. Do you see panel structure coming on the Semiconductor market? What is Plasma-Therm’s strategic focus for the panel based infrastructure? Is Plasma-Therm focusing on supporting panel based infrastructure? And if yes, could you comment on your level of readiness and for which of your equipment product line?
PT: Like many other capital equipment manufacturers, we will continue to keenly monitor this particular segment of the market. Our technologies are scalable and we will be ready when there is clear customer-driven demand.
YD: Internet of Things is gaining strong interest today and is expected to grow in coming years. Many discussions are taking place today regarding the technologies supporting the growth of IoT. How does Plasma-Therm see the integration of technologies in the IoT market?
PT: IoT is happening, no question. Largest growth areas driven by IoT will be sensors, data storage, and communication. These segments are already part of our primary markets and we are well positioned to take advantage of the potential explosive growth in the IoT market. Demands from IoT will present new and exciting challenges to the market such as smart fabrics, flexible and integrated electronics, and intelligent bio-medical devices. These new demands will require an acceleration of the pace of innovation for the semiconductor market in areas overlapping technologies traditionally considered far from semiconductor technology.
YD: What is the status of Plasma-Therm in the IoT business?
PT: We are well entrenched in the sensors area for both mechanical and optical devices. We are also a leading supplier to the wireless communication market. Plasma-Therm products have been a workhorse in the magnetic data storage industry, which enables big-data management and analysis.
Our most recent product capabilities, such as etching or dicing silicon with extremely high selectivity to photoresist, passivation and metals, low temperature and low damage strip on silicon and GaN, and ion beam deposition and etch solutions, are well positioned to best serve this promising market.
YD: According to you, what new future applications and promising markets can change the industry landscape and the positions of the leading dicing equipment manufacturers in the applications mentioned above?
PT: The first and foremost driver in the industry is wafer thinning to enable 3D stacking, combined with the overall desire for smaller form-factor. Both of these drivers will continue to move the market towards new dicing and packaging processes including PDOT. The industry will also continue to innovate on the materials side. Challenges already exist in dicing materials such as low-k, SiC and GaN. These new materials will require adoption of more front-end-of-line technologies. This will further fuel the growth of what is being called the mid-end-of-line where the boundaries between the wafer fab and the packaging areas become blurred.
YD: A press release has been recently published “DISCO Selects Plasma-Therm as Global Business Partner for Plasma Dicing Technology”. Could you explain the reasons of such partnership while DISCO remains a competitor? What added value DISCO will bring to Plasma-Therm’s tools?
PT: DISCO is today’s market leader in all dicing-related process steps. They are the world experts in grinding, polishing and dicing. They already realize that the market is looking for alternatives for saw dicing and have been successful at offering laser as an alternative. Our partnership with DISCO cements our position as the solution of choice for PDOT as the next alternative to saws. We do not view DISCO as a competitor because the three technologies (saw, laser and plasma) will continue to coexist for the foreseeable future. Each of these techniques offers a unique set of advantages, making it best suitable for specific applications. Further, this partnership will accelerate the pace of development on the process integration front.
YD: Can you comment on how this decision will impact Plasma-Therm and DISCO and will it change anything on the position of DISCO now in the Semiconductor industry? How will Plasma-Therm compete against the leaders such as DISCO, Accretech?
PT: As mentioned previously, DISCO and Plasma-Therm have established a partnership in order to offer to customers the most competitive dicing solutions, regardless of the technique. This partnership will further enhance DISCO’s position as the market-share leader and will allow them to continue to best serve this market segment.
Abdul Lateef, Chief Executive Officer
Abdul Lateef was project manager, Applications Lab manager, principal scientist, and Etch Business Unit head at Plasma-Therm, and Senior Project Manager at Oerlikon headquarters, before becoming Plasma-Therm CEO. He has a master’s in Mechanical Engineering from University of Nebraska and an MBA from University of Florida.
Thierry Lazerand, Director Business Development
Thierry Lazerand experience spans over 30 years with lead roles in front end device manufacturing, technical marketing and business development responsibilities with device manufacturers and equipment vendors in Europe and USA. He received his Master in Material Sciences and MBA from universities of Limoges and Nantes in France.
Strong demand for thinner wafers and smaller die is driving the evolution of dicing technologies.
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