Rumors continue to rise about Augmented Reality (AR) headsets being around the corner. Is this the consumer dream? Is it the next generation consumer electronics revolution? All these catchy ideas represent billions of investments from all steps of the supply chain, trying to build upon this momentum. And in the meantime, we are seeing major announcements in the industry. Apart from the investments, the fund raising, the prototypes, we also see companies either scaling down as Magic Leap illustrated for the consumer market, or even disappearing from the landscape. Does it mean that AR will never happen? We do not think so. As we thoroughly explain in Yole Développement’s (Yole) recent report Displays and Optics for AR & VR 2020, it all comes down to a few things.
First and foremost, we need OEMs to build a compelling use case for the consumer. Without it, there is little chance to convince a broad range of customers, apart from the niches we can already see in gaming and sports, for example. These niches are part of the supply chain that is being built up as we speak. Generally speaking, when mentioning AR headsets, we believe that a triptych of performance, form factor and cost has to be respected. After having had the chance to ask WaveOptics about its advancements in waveguides and AR headsets in general, Yole had the opportunity to go up the supply chain. Zine Bouhamri, Technology and Market Analyst Display at Yole Développement interviewed Oxford Instruments, an equipment manufacturer releasing new equipment specifically targeting the AR market. Stéphanie Baclet, Technical Marketing Engineer and Joao Ferreira Product Manager, kindly share details about this equipment and the company’s vision of the market in general.
Yole Développement (YD): Could you please share a little bit about yourself and the activities of Oxford Instruments with our readers?
Stephanie Baclet (SB): Oxford Instruments Plasma Technology is a leading supplier of advanced plasma etch and deposition solutions to the compound semiconductor and related materials industry. Established in 1982, we are one of the founding companies of this industry. We have developed an exceptional depth of knowledge on material processing of a range of optical devices. In the AR market, we are uniquely placed to take our customers from lab to fab as we have been building expertise on etching slanted gratings for the last 20 years.
I am technical marketing engineer working closely with optoelectronics device manufacturers to translate requirements of their devices into nanofabrication requirements for plasma processing products. I have been working in semiconductor equipment manufacturing for over 10 years on a range of manufacturing processes for opto-electronics devices such as high brightness light emitting diodes (HBLEDs) and Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Lasers (VCSELs).
Joao Ferreira (JF): I am a product manager with responsibility for several plasma product portfolios including the ion beam range. I also worked at Applied Materials on the introduction of new ion implantation products before joining Oxford Instruments eleven years ago. I have over 20 years’ experience in semiconductor equipment manufacturing.
YD: AR is a dream that has been promised to consumers for many years now. How do you view the opportunity this market represents?
SB: We see AR glasses as the next big step in the wearable technology space. As smartphone sales flatten out, wearables offer an opportunity for growth in the consumer market. If you consider Apple, the success of the Apple Watch and Airpods has driven a 25% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) in revenue for wearables over six years. Airpods Pro remain supply-constrained despite the high price point.
For the AR dream to come true, expertise from many different industries must combine to deliver an engaging and comfortable user experience. We see it from our product portfolio. We are engaged in developments in micro LED as an enabler for next generation displays, VCSEL for gesture recognition, surface relief gratings for waveguide combiners and even GaN for 5G and wireless charging requirements. Each of these industries is different in their structure and level of maturity but they are all key to the success of AR. Being at the crossroad of these technologies is an exciting place for Oxford Instruments. As a lab and fab partner, we view these developments as opportunities for business growth and we are allocating our R&D investments accordingly.
YD: You are targeting waveguide manufacturing here with Ionfab. What made you decide to follow that path?
JF: Oxford Instruments’ ion beam systems have been used for etching of slanted gratings and fabrication of 3D features for many years. Our systems have been used by pioneers of this industry from the very early days.
With the recent developments in AR and the adoption of waveguide technology in AR head-sets, in particular slanted surface relief gratings, we recognized that a solution for increased wafer yield and lower cost of ownership is fundamental to enable our customers to successfully develop and launch exciting new consumer products.
We have developed the hardware and processes to enable good die across the full wafer and make Ionfab the system of choice for AR slanted gratings in volume production.
YD: In our opinion the optics are one of the, if not the most, critical parts of AR headsets. But many technologies are competing in terms of optics, such as holographic elements versus the surface-relief grating based ones that you are addressing. How do you view the competition?
SB: Several technologies are indeed in competition for the optical combiner and what we have observed over the years is a natural segmentation of these technologies based on use case. There is currently no technology which does it all, whether you are considering cost, Field of View (FoV), image quality, or form factor.
Within the surface relief technology space, we offer both blazed and slanted gratings as manufacturers often have to tradeoff between efficiency and manufacturability. Slanted gratings are indeed challenging to manufacture and replicate however they deliver the highest efficiency. Using our expertise in material processing, we enable our customers to gain tighter control over manufacturing tolerances for both types of gratings whilst opening a path towards cost reduction. We also understand the challenges in building a uniform eye box and we have capabilities built into our equipment to support optical designers.
YD: Can you please expand on what you are bringing to the industry with Ionfab that was not available before?
JF: As mentioned before, our proprietary ion beam technology has been used for many years in the corporate lab environment. Our new product builds on this know-how and adds the ability of processing multiple devices at the same time, the flexibility of selectable slanted angles, and the possibility of depth and angle modulation, while enabling low cost of ownership. Our product increases the number of waveguides per wafer for slanted etching by a factor of ten.
YD: How long have you been developing this tool? And what are the key specifications that needed to be developed compared to a dry etching tool commonly used in semiconductor manufacturing?
JF: Ion beam is a specialized tool that has very specific advantages over regular plasma etch tools, such as Ion-Coupled Plasma (ICP) etch. For example, the high degree of collimation of the ion beam and selectable ion energy and angle of incidence means that you gain superior control over etching profile.
In the last three years we ran a major development program on ion beam to deliver unmatched uniformity, depth and angle, over a large area as well as the flexibility to do this at various angles without changing hardware. We focused on hardware and process development as well as serviceability to enable our customers to unlock the AR opportunity.
YD: What do you make of the competition from dry etching equipment manufacturers?
SB: We value competition. We constantly analyze the activity in this marketplace, and we can say that our product readiness level and expertise are unique. Angled etching is a challenging process to demonstrate at large wafer size and we have a decade of experience across our ion beam team.
YD: If the consumer dream is fulfilled, we would be talking about millions of waveguides to produce a few years from now. What kind of throughput can you deliver with Ionfab? What is your development roadmap to further enhance your tool?
JF: Throughput is very specific to a device structure so I would not like to give an absolute number. However, we know that maximizing the number of good devices per day alongside device performance are critical to our customers, so we have developed the solution to deliver this. The product that we just launched increased the throughput tenfold.
Etch rate, for example, is enhanced by controlling the ion flux and the system is combined with industry standard cassette wafer handling solutions for reliability and efficiency. With regards to the development road map, we are making strides to further build on our capability for thickness and angle modulation. We continue to invest, and we are addressing primary and secondary customer benefits.
YD: Where do you position yourself within the waveguide manufacturing supply chain? Do you support the master design that comes before nanoimprint lithography? Or direct fabrication of waveguides through etching?
SB: Our solution targets the fabrication of masters in the stamp and replica technique. This method is currently the most mature in the market as it benefits from the availability of high refractive index resin. The master is of extremely high value and the quality of the surface relief gratings is critical to the efficiency of the combiner. It is a key step in the supply chain.
Our products can also be implemented in alternative approaches such as direct etching of high refractive index glass. We are working on multiple approaches with organizations that are well respected in the industry and we are continually enhancing our product roadmap based on these insights.
YD: How do you see the AR consumer market in five years from now?
SB: With companies like Oppo releasing AR products, we expect the AR ecosystem to grow as the supply chain for these new products is built. Products from Apple internal projects, publicly reported as N301 and N421, are also eagerly anticipated. Over the next five years, the AR supply chain will have to focus on addressing the challenges yet to be solved on performance, cost, and yield. Reducing manufacturing cost is a critical activity for manufacturers using diffractive technology and the expertise of equipment suppliers is key to enabling this roadmap.
Besides, global social trends affecting consumers and the new “working from home” economy drive the need for more and richer interactive online experience. AR is seen as a potentially very engaging platform and with increased investment from companies such as Apple, we expect the value proposition to strengthen thanks to a growing AR software and app ecosystem.
YD: Would you have a final word for our readers?
SB: My last word to readers would be come and talk to us. We are a team with great expertise in our field and we would love to hear about your technology and enable you and your devices to deliver on the promises of AR.
JF: We are very excited about what this product has to offer as it addresses the key challenges that AR manufacturers face today. It is without doubt a game changer for the production of AR devices. We are confident that our customers will be as excited as we are.
Stéphanie Baclet has worked for over 10 years in the semiconductor industry. She works closely with optoelectronics device manufacturers to translate requirements of their device characteristics into nanofabrication requirements for plasma processing products. She has worked as a Senior Application Engineer focused on new plasma product introduction and developed processing techniques for various technologies such as HBLED, Laser diodes, and transistors.
João Ferreira joined Oxford Instruments Plasma Technology in 2009 as a Project Manager to oversee the development and introduction of new products. In 2017 he joined the Product Management team to manage the Ion Beam team and product strategy. Currently he is a Product Manager with responsibility over several plasma products including the Ion Beam product.He graduated in Physics from Instituto Superior Tecnico, Lisbon and completed an MBA in general Management later at the University of Brighton, UK. He has been working in semiconductor equipment manufacturing for over 20 years.
As a Technology & Market Analyst, Displays, Zine Bouhamri, PhD is a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Zine manages the day to day production of technology & market reports, as well as custom consulting projects. He is also deeply involved in the business development of the Displays unit activities at Yole.
Previously, Zine was in charge of numerous R&D programs at Aledia. During more than three years, he developed strong technical expertise as well as a detailed understanding of the display industry.
Zine is author and co-author of several papers and patents.
Zine Bouhamri holds an Electronics Engineering Degree from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (France), one from the Politecnico di Torino (Italy), and a Ph.D. in RF & Optoelectronics from Grenoble University (France).
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