Mask houses try to keep costs down

Rapidly rising photomask costs may be hurting the maskmakers as well as the chipmakers, according to one analyst, but two prominent mask houses say they’re trying to keep costs low – despite skyrocketing tool overheads.

Prices for 0.13-micron masks have gone up three- and four-fold, with a mask set fetching between $600,000 to $1 million these days, up from the $200,000 to $250,000 for 0.18-micron masks.

“If you’re a DRAM company making one million wafer runs, it’s an aggravation,” suggested Mark FitzGerald, managing director at Banc of America Securities. “If you’re an ASIC company with a run of 10,000 to 20,000 wafers, it’s a big issue for you.”

In a downturn, chipmakers are expected to invest in hot new technologies and product designs, including mask sets. That’s not happening to the extent that was expected, said FitzGerald, and discerning customers are more carefully choosing which mask sets to invest in – because of those high costs.

“When the industry was profitable last year, people could justify being aggressive on new product designs,” said FitzGerald. “This year, they have to choose between new technologies.”

Mike McCarthy, VP of IR for Photronics Inc., told WaferNews that in attempts to keep mask costs down for customers, Photronics has initiated the Design for Manufacturability program. In essence, the program focuses on increased communication with customers to sell products that are really needed. Sometimes a customer will ask for something on an E-beam tool, but Photronics can give them a comparable, cheaper product with laser tools. Some customers would have you unnecessarily overinspect a plate, said McCarthy, and that drives up time and cost, as can asking for a smaller pixel size than is needed.

“Clearly the customers expect their suppliers to provide them with the most efficient solutions in order to maximize the return on their investment in that new device,” said McCarthy. “This is one of several paths that we have been able to lay down to help the customer achieve those goals.”

Kenneth Rygler, executive VP for worldwide marketing and strategic planning at DuPont Photomasks Inc., said, “We are actively and diligently working across the value chain – with designers, EDA tool makers, equipment producers and customers – to develop short-term and long-term solutions that will successfully mitigate the cost of masks without sacrificing quality.”

Rygler said DuPont was working with the image-creation community to explore the way data is created, managed, transformed and transmitted in the subwavelength era – all of which can have an effect on photomask costs and cycle times. “Some types of resolution enhancement technologies and certain kinds of data formats can create large data file sizes that can result in longer photomask write times, significantly increasing costs,” Rygler commented.

In addition, DuPont is also working with toolmakers on total cost of ownership, including equipment cost, throughput, uptime and maintenance costs. DuPont has “engaged an increasing number of equipment producers who are aggressively competing to meet the new goals of image fidelity and low cost. Although this next generation of equipment may actually be more expensive than today’s, the improvements in productivity will more than offset the cost,” Rygler noted.

DuPont is also mix-and-matching technology for mask sets, he said, and is now honing complete processes on E-beam and laser pattern generators specifically for each application and layer, to cost-effectively deliver masks.

The reason the masks are costing more is simple: The tools to make the masks have also risen dramatically in price. In 1995, a Core 2564 tool would retail for $2.5 to $3 million. Today, tools needed for 0.13- and 0.10-micron are coming in at about $15 million apiece. Additionally, increased complexity means it takes longer to make the masks, shrinking photomask house margins further.

“The technology and services that mask companies provide is consistent and on a path to keeping the customers in a position where they’re able to meet the ongoing requirements of Moore’s law,” explained McCarthy, of Photronics. “In general, it’s safe to assume that with each step down the technology ladder, pricing is moving up. It’s a reflection of the size of the cost of our infrastructure as well; we’re looking at $15 million dollars for 193 tools.”

— Matt Wickenheiser, editor, WaferNews


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