Dutch company positions itself for the growing MEMS market

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April 2, 2003 — MEMS manufacturers are generally still years behind their colleagues in the conventional integrated circuit industry when it comes to feature size. While everybody seems to be focusing on next-generation lithography tools that enable nanometer-size resolution, one of the main players in the business, ASM Lithography Holding NV in the Netherlands, has a new tool targeted at MEMS.

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The new product, called a MEMS Stepper, is tuned to specific nonstandard processes that are inherent to microelectromechanical devices. Norbert Kappel, ASML’s vice president of marketing, said his company’s exposure system improves alignment, handles wafers with height differences and can handle diameters ranging from 6 inches down to 2 inches.

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While the rapidly growing MEMS market is an important target, the new tool also is useful for applications such as micro-optoelectromechanical systems (MOEMS), application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and power devices, Kappel said.


Kappel said that ASML had always kept a close eye on the emerging MEMS industry and said that it is now maturing rapidly. “MEMS is a growing market with lots of opportunities for the future,” said Kappel, singling out labs-on-a-chip, radio frequency (wireless) MEMS and biomedical pressure sensors.


Aside from the increased acceptance of MEMS and their lowered costs, Kappel said, there is an even more important reason to enter the market now: integration. In the past, the mechanical device and its interface electronics were placed on separate chips. Now there is a trend toward placing these components on the same chip, which is where the MEMS Stepper comes in.


Kappel refused to name customers, but said ASML expects to sell 15 to 25 of these systems in 2003.


Robert Mariner, managing director of VLSI Research Europe Ltd., said ASML made “a good move” when it decided a few years ago to create the division responsible for the MEMS Stepper. He said that they have the technology for free as a legacy from their main business. “They’re probably not generating a fast amount of money, but then again, their overhead is very low,” according to Mariner.


The company is at a point where the cost of next generation technology for integrated circuits could become a barrier for further development, Kappel said. “The applications market, however, is still growing.”


Kappel said that a recent VLSI lithography market study predicts that wafer exposure systems targeted at ICs will become less dominant, while the opposite is true for systems targeted at MEMS, packaging, displays and other special applications.


IC exposure systems represented 83 percent of the total lithography market in 2001, decreasing to 77 percent in 2002, according to the latest numbers from VLSI Research. “We will see some growth for the low end of the market,” said Mariner. The MEMS and special applications’ contribution will grow from 1.9 percent of the total lithography market in 2002 to 2.3 percent in 2005, he said.


ASML expects the market for MEMS components to grow substantially, following the predictions of In-Stat/MDR. VLSI seems a bit more conservative, but also foresees growth in this segment. Both conclude that if the market for components grows, then the market for lithography tools required for manufacturing must also increase.


However, for the near future, Marlene Bourne, senior analyst with In-Stat/MDR, sees only limited opportunity for suppliers of specialized MEMS exposure systems.


According to Bourne, there are many startups in this field that need manufacturing equipment, but most make do with used semiconductor equipment, not newer and more expensive specialized equipment. With the number of companies that went out of business over the past year due to the telecom crash, there’s a lot of used equipment on the market.


Bourne said that most of the current sales will come from MEMS fabs that are either upgrading or expanding current facilities, or building new ones from the ground up, such as Colibrys and MEMSCAP. “However, that’s not a lot of companies,” she said.


The current opportunity for MEMS equipment might be limited but will grow over time, Bourne said.


Companies that target the MEMS lithography market segment include Ultratech Stepper (market leader), Nikon Precision Europe, Suss MicroTec and EV Group. These companies are positioning themselves to capture an increased share of the market as it matures, Bourne said.


All are set up mostly for dual use — semiconductors and MEMS, she said. “Offering dual-use equipment allows these companies to generate revenue from as many different angles as possible in a tough economic environment while looking to the future. It’s smart business,” said Bourne.


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