Thin film deposition technologies are important in semiconductor manufacturing. They are used for processes including high quality coating layers, electroacoustic piezo layers, passivation layers and high-K dielectrics. Among different thin film deposition technologies, Pulsed Laser Deposition (PLD) is an interesting method with local deposition, enabling very good film control, uniformity and functionality. This enables material systems for a broad range of applications. This technology has been known and acknowledged in the academic and R&D fields but was never really considered as a potential high volume manufacturing technology, until Solmates came on the scene. With their newest equipment platform, Solmates aims at 24×7 production, with MEMS-RF applications on top of the list. We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bart Berenbak, Head of Marketing & Sales, for Solmates – and look forward to supporting their webcast in October. Here is the outcome of the discussion.
Claire Troadec: Can you please describe your company and products to our readers?
Bart Berenbak: Solmates is a supplier of thin-film deposition equipment. Our technology is based on Pulsed Laser Deposition (PLD). The technology has been known in academia since excimer lasers became available in the eighties. Although many people recognize the thin-film material opportunities of PLD there is a widespread assumption that it is mainly for research and development, and not suitable for high-volume manufacturing.
While there are many suppliers of academic PLD equipment, Solmates sets itself apart in its mission to establish PLD as mainstream deposition technology like ALD and argon-sputtering. We enable high-volume manufacturing (HVM) of novel materials on wafers diameters up to 300mm, meeting strict industrial requirements for quality, uniformity, defect control, combined with attractive economics.
Solmates was founded in 2007, and is currently in the midst of the “lab-to-fab transition” with almost 40 highly skilled employees and rapidly expanding. Management and board members have proven track records in semiconductor high volume equipment supply, and Solmates is adequately funded for growth.
CT: What are the specifications of your PLD technology? For example can you achieve technical results that other standard deposition technologies such as sputtering cannot achieve? Can you fix problems that other technologies cannot? Why is that?
BB: Pulsed laser deposition is local deposition. Its nanosecond pulses are local in space, on the wafer. This yields up to a 100,000-fold higher density of excited species compared to conventional argon sputtering. PLD’s specific combination of plasma energy and density enables growth of unique material systems.
Moreover, the local deposition allows unique control over the thin film. With 14 years of PLD experience, Solmates knows how to deposit uniform films over large substrates, controlling layer thickness as well as film properties, morphology and stress.
Besides new materials, PLD can also be a solution for known materials when manufacturers are hitting the limits of conventional deposition technologies. For example, traditional sputter targets are larger than the wafer, while the local nature of PLD allows us to use virtually any size target independent of the wafer size.
For some applications, large sputter targets are troublesome to produce up to a point where supplies are not reliable. Solmates can deposit on 300mm wafers using much smaller targets, which are easier to manufacture, and can readily be supplied. This may appear to be just practical engineering, but it does translate into substantial advantages.
Our aim is not to replace other conventional deposition technologies. We present a technology which is complementary, positioned in thin-film departments, adjacent to other mainstream deposition equipment.
CT: Where do you stand today in terms of market offering?
BB: Last November, we started rollout of our new Solmates proposition. Besides a new corporate identity, we announced our new equipment platform: “Cluster compatible, up to 300mm.” These simple words, combined with the Virtual Reality-experience visualizing our PLD-cluster, caused quite a stir.
There is a clear need in the market as several renowned companies approached Solmates for detailed information on our Pulsed Laser Deposition equipment capabilities. We have been busy during the Covid-19 period, engaging with new customers, performing demos, and assembling the first batch of PLD equipment. We anticipate positive validation of these new PLD systems and are currently deciding on our strategy for HVM market introduction.
Central in our offering is combining robust manufacturing equipment with improved particle performance. The latter is crucial, of course, as these have historically been associated with PLD. Gladly, Solmates’ particle reduction team manages to deliver upon its aggressive roadmap. Customer feedback on device yields has been very positive, and we have the engineering data to reach levels associated with other mature deposition technologies.
In terms of offering, there are different chamber configurations depending on application and wafer size. We offer a range of lasers to balance budget against desired throughput. Solmates’ automation is based on the established SEMI-compliant PTO software from the PEER-group, giving us flexibility to integrate with virtually any mature module.
On the basic end of the spectrum, we offer an economic stand-alone system, with a single wafer loadlock. On the sophisticated end we can deliver integrated clusters comprising multiple PLD-chambers mounted on a mainframe, potentially combined with chambers for degassing, pre-cleaning and complementary deposition technologies.
CT: What are the applications targeted by your family of equipment?
BB: Solmates PLD can be applied in a wide range of markets, like MEMS-RF & 5G, MEMS sensors and actuators, μ-OLED , photovoltaics (PV), photonics, power, energy, high-k insulators, super-conductors, and epitaxial templates, just to name a few. Through 14 years of experience and partnerships, Solmates has developed many applications. The Solmates website contains a breadth of information about the range of deposited materials.
Ironically, the sheer number of PLD applications is also a luxury problem, creating the risk of spreading attention thinly. We therefore chose to focus our in-house development on a few strategic topics.
CT: What opportunities do you see in the market? To our understanding, 5G could be one of them, right?
BB: Good question: 5G provides a wealth of opportunities for Solmates PLD. The MEMS-RF market is here and now, and the timing seems perfect for Solmates. But we also see traction in MEMS-sensors, microphones, actuators, power amplification, and ultrasonic devices.
Another hot area is Transparent Conductive Oxides (TCOs) and passivating oxides for μ-OLED and PV applications. Furthermore, lead zirconium titanate (PZT) is recognized for its high piezoelectric activity and remains the workhorse for many MEMS applications. The need for Solmates’ PZT grows, but we also see an upcoming need for lead-free alternatives.
Further out technologies, like photonics, MRAM, spintronics and quantum computing are developed through partnerships with renowned research and technology Institutes.
We will share more specific applications during the Solmates PLD webcast scheduled in October.
CT: What about the cost of your technology? Do you have any metrics you could share, like wafer cost compared to competition?
BB: While better quality typically comes at a higher price, Solmates PLD can have major costs advantages. For example, the earlier mentioned sputter targets can be prohibitively expensive, and the resulting cost-per-wafer is sometimes excessive. In comparison, Solmates can reliably guarantee high quality targets at a fraction of the price. We have assessed our cost-per-wafer depicting HVM scenarios at a fraction of the cost associated with PVD.
This paints a picture why early adopters in the market are interested to work with Solmates. It gives them the ability to develop and manufacture superior quality at significantly reduced cost.
CT: How do you expect your company to evolve? What roadmap do you have in place? What can we expect in five years from now?
BB: In five years, Solmates Pulsed Laser Deposition equipment will be an established technology, adjacent to other well-known deposition methodologies. Customers will have integrated PLD thin films in their device structures, and manufacturing will be ramped-up, running mainframes with multiple Solmates chambers in 24×7 operation.
The Solmates roadmap has four strategic pillars. The first three are particle reduction, application development, and the equipment platform. With customers demanding high-volume readiness, a fourth aspect becomes increasingly important, namely Solmates organizational ability to scale-up and deliver consistent quality to an increasing customer portfolio.
Last year, Solmates doubled in size and we predict another growth spurt in the coming period. Likely the customer service department will experience the biggest step, establishing local service organizations to provide optimal support to key customers. We aim to expand our facilities in Enschede by the end of this year, virtually doubling our R&D cleanroom and enabling assembly of around 10 systems in parallel.
CT: Are there any other comments you would like to add ?
BB: We will provide more information in a webcast in October, supported by Yole Développement. We will explain the fundamental advantages of Pulsed Laser Deposition and the novel material systems enabled by PLD. Furthermore we will reveal more about the new HVM equipment platform and how we engage with customers on volume production applications. Recent R&D progress and commercialization has been supported with EU funding under the H2020 program FIVE-G, contract number 858428.
Bart Berenbak is the head of Marketing & Sales and is part of the Management Team. He finished his PhD in 2001 in Physical Chemistry of molecular beam interactions with single crystal surfaces. He subsequently started his industrial career as Field Process Engineer at ASM-Europe, qualifying new equipment and applications. He contributed to the maturing of 300mm Vertical Furnaces through collaborations with renowned semiconductor manufacturers and resolving many tool-down escalations throughout the world. Before joining Solmates, Bart held several senior management positions in innovative scale-up companies.
Claire Troadec is Director of the Power & Wireless Division at Yole Développement (Yole), part of Yole Group of Companies. These activities are covering power electronics, batteries & energy management, compound semiconductors and emerging materials and RF electronics.
Based on her valuable experience in the semiconductor industry, Claire is managing the expansion of the technical and market expertise of Power & Wireless team. Daily interactions with leading companies allow these analysts to collect a large amount of data and cross their vision of market segments’ evolution and technology breakthroughs.
In addition, Claire’s mission is focused on the management of business relationships with leading companies of this sector and the development of market research and strategy consulting activities inside the Yole group.
Claire Troadec holds a Master’s degree in Applied Physics specializing in Microelectronics from INSA (Rennes, France). She then joined NXP Semiconductors, and worked for 7 years as a complementary metal-on-silicon oxide semiconductor (CMOS) process integration engineer at the IMEC R&D facility. During this time, she oversaw the isolation and performance boosting of CMOS technology node devices from 90 nm down to 45 nm. She has authored or co-authored seven US patents and nine international publications in the semiconductor field and managed her own distribution company before joining Yole Développement in 2013.
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