Excitement about Nano-Imprint Lithography (NIL) technologies has grown exponentially since 2014. Although the NIL equipment business is still a niche market for semiconductor applications, its revenues are expected to explode with an impressive 20% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2018-2024. That will see it be worth around $145M by 2024 according to Yole Développement’s Nano-Imprint Technology Trends for Semiconductor Applications 2019 report.
Numerous companies with different business models, such as photonic element manufacturers, epitaxial foundries, microfluidic foundries or integrated device manufacturers (IDMs) have now invested in NIL technology for Augmented Reality, 3D Sensing, as well as Datacom/Telecommunications applications, which paved the way for a significant boost in this market.
The NIL market is fragmented into different business models, with numerous players. Equipment suppliers use different technical strategies to skip a step in the semiconductor area.
i-Micronews invites you to discover the perspective of EV Group, a leader in nanometer range NIL, in this interview with Dr. Martin Eibelhuber, the company’s Deputy Head of Business Development. In this discussion, Yole explores EV Group’s activities in, and vision for, the NIL market.
This interview has been conducted by Amandine Pizzagalli, Market and Technology Analyst at Yole.
Amandine Pizzagalli (AP): As a leader in NIL, what kind of NIL technology does EVG provide and what applications does it target?
Dr. Martin Eibelhuber (ME): EVG has the largest installed base of NIL systems worldwide, and we are engaged in virtually all key areas related to nanoimprint lithography. We have developed solutions for UV-NIL, hot embossing and µ-contact printing, addressing not only the needs for R&D but also for volume manufacturing. At the moment, we are focused mainly on two key areas where the benefits of a wafer-level NIL process are being explored. These are photonic and biomedical applications, where NIL is ideally suited to enable novel device designs.
AP: Can you tell us what the main market drivers for NIL are?
ME: Due to the recent success of 3D sensing, wafer-level optics is the most recognized high-volume market for NIL today. NIL is ideally suited to replicate refractive, diffractive and nanophotonic structures and to efficiently manufacture novel optical sensors with high performance and in a small form factor.
However, there is even greater interest in utilizing NIL for biosensors/biochips as well as for augmented reality (AR) glasses. These devices benefit from NIL as it is considered the best way to achieve the required production economics for mass markets.
AP: What are the competitive advantages of your products for semiconductor applications?
EVG has been active in the field of nanoimprint lithography for more than 20 years, and pioneered the transition of NIL from R&D to volume manufacturing. In recent years we expanded our imprint portfolio tremendously. We are proud that we are always a step ahead of the market, and thus able to meet market demands early on. This was for example the case with our first fully integrated nanoimprint lithography production platform – the EVG HERCULES NIL – which was delivered to market in 2016. This year we launched a new HERCULES NIL system for 300 mm, which is also unique and clearly shows the market demand for high-volume NIL solutions.
On top of equipment development, we also established our NILPhotonics Competence Center back in 2014, which is a proven innovation incubator for the implementation of nanoimprint lithography. To support this, we developed a team of skilled process and technology experts and invested in developing a world class infrastructure. In this open access platform, we closely cooperate with our customers to shorten development cycles. Together with key players in the supply chain, we address all core requirements for production-ready solutions.
AP: What do you see as the next applications driving the NIL market? How does EVG see the future of NIL solutions in the semiconductor field?
ME: For semiconductors, we see key drivers for NIL in the broad area of ‘More than Moore’ applications related to optical and biomedical applications. Their lithographic requirements differ in many cases from known standards, and NIL can address a lot of these challenges.
Next to that, novel displays are definitely a hot topic. First to mention are near-eye displays for augmented reality. We don’t see many alternative technologies that can simultaneously provide the needed high quality and economies of scale to grow this market.
On top of that, we see numerous exciting developments, such as holographic displays, plasmonic-based biosensors, metalenses, functional surfaces and others. Overall, there are many emerging and disruptive technology areas where companies are taking a closer look at NIL.
AP: How do you see the transition from mainstream lithography solution to NIL? Do you see further use of NIL processes in the field of semiconductor applications?
ME: In contrast to mainstream lithography, NIL is a replication-based technology. This affords it unique advantages for applications where conventional optical lithography for the most part does not compete. Benefits of NIL include the minor restrictions to the device size, manufacturing of nanostructures on large areas up to panels, and the replication of complex 2.5D surfaces. Last but not least, NIL provides the ability to be used in a build-up process without requiring additional etching. In this way, even complex devices can be manufactured efficiently through single step patterning. All these aspects differ significantly from conventional lithography technologies and thus we consider NIL to be an extension to the lithographic toolbox rather than a competing solution.
AP: Recently, EVG announced a 300 mm NIL track system for production. For what photonic applications did EVG receive orders relating to 300 mm wafer processes? When do you expect commercialization of those products using NIL processes?
ME: The HERCULES NIL 300 mm system addresses the need for production scaling with nanoimprint lithography. The device elements for augmented reality/mixed reality (AR/MR) waveguides or biomedical applications are typically quite large compared to chips in the semiconductor market. Thus, more efficient substrate utilization can be achieved. Additionally, a fully integrated system provides the best process control for all relevant process steps by employing optimized process modules for each step in one fine-tuned platform. In this way, the system addresses the manufacturing requirements for rapidly increasing production volumes combined with significantly improved production economics.
AP: How do you forecast the evolution of the NIL equipment market and the industrial landscape for semiconductor in the coming years?
ME: Leading manufacturers of AR devices, optical sensors and biomedical chips are already utilizing NIL and realizing the benefits of this technology. Thus, we expect that the nanoimprint market will grow rapidly alongside the projected rapid growth of these products.
AP: Do you see any demand for NIL in China?
ME: Of course, China will be a key market for NIL as well. Chinese companies are moving fast into new technologies and are looking for differentiation in new technologies. NIL and NIL-enabled devices fit perfectly into this picture.
AP: How do you see NIL being used for display activities?
ME: For sure the most prominent topic is the already mentioned near-eye displays for augmented reality. However, NIL is also gaining a lot of interest from traditional display manufacturers as it allows the ability to pattern nanostructures on panel sizes. We have developed equipment for imprinting on displays, and have a track record for scaling SmartNIL technology rapidly to any given panel format.
AP: What are the next steps for NIL improvement?
ME: At the moment, most activities for NIL are related to back-end-like manufacturing environments. However, we want to develop NIL closer to typical CMOS manufacturing and thus we are collaborating with CEA-Leti in their Inspire program. One of our HERCULES systems is installed at CEA-Leti’s 200-mm CMOS line to integrate NIL processes with typical CMOS manufacturing steps. This is an ideal synergy to move NIL processes and equipment to the next level.
Martin Eibelhuber is deputy head of business development at EV Group, where he focuses on the application of EVG’s wafer bonding, mask alignment and nanoimprint lithography technology to a variety of markets, particularly compound semiconductors, nanotechnology and photonics. He holds a PhD (Dr. techn.) in technical physics with an emphasis on nanoscience and semiconductor physics from the Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria. As a university staff member, he gained professional experience in photonics, nanofabrication and material characterization.
Amandine Pizzagalli is a Technology & Market Analyst, Equipment & Materials – Semiconductor Manufacturing, at Yole Développement (Yole).
She is deeply involved in the development of the Semiconductor & Software division with the production of reports and custom consulting projects dedicated to the semiconductor equipment and materials industries and related manufacturing processes.
Amandine graduated from the engineering school, CPE Lyon (France), with a technical expertise in Semiconductor & Nano-Electronics and holds an electronics engineering degree followed by a master’s in semiconductor manufacturing technology from KTH Royal institute of technology (Sweden).
Nano-Imprint Lithography is revived by photonics and biochips as well as front-end memory applications.
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