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Every day, we see new stories about the impact of chip shortages – from auto plants shutting down, to constrained growth in PC sales. The supply chain disruptions of COVID-19 have combined with increased demand to catch many companies off guard.

The causes of the chip shortage crisis have been widely discussed, but what about specific solutions? How can semiconductor manufacturers add new capacity to meet demand as quickly as possible?

While there is a lot of talk about investment in building new chip plants, these traditional methods of manufacturing capacity growth typically take several quarters, or even years, to come to fruition. Building new fabs is a monumentally costly and time-intensive task requiring years of planning and construction, which means new fabs realistically are not going to fill the short-term or medium-term gap. Likewise, adding more processing equipment is capital-intensive, takes many quarters to realize, and is often limited by scarce clean-room floor space and equipment lead times that can be 6-12 months or longer. 

We instead must look for smarter, creative ways to increase throughput and yield, so more chips can be produced in the fabs we already have, without requiring lengthy building or equipment facilitation.

Methodologies have been developed over the years to help address the need to ramp production with greater speed and less expense. The famous CopyExactly! method, pioneered by Intel 20 years ago, is one such approach which was designed to reduce process risks and enable expanded manufacturing capacity across facilities. But as semiconductors have become more complex and processes have advanced, so must the techniques and metrology needed to support advanced manufacturing applications. 

To get more out of today’s existing facilities, which are increasingly focused on advanced process notes and technologies, we need innovative solutions that are fit-for-purpose to support advanced process control–and can support it quickly and easily. 

At the company I founded and lead, Atonarp, our mass spectrometry team has pioneered just such a solution with Aston, a new advanced molecular sensor platform for semiconductor metrology. Aston provides exactly the kind of in-situ real-time molecular profiling to support the needs of today’s advanced process control. 

"We've seen unit process throughput increases with Aston that exceed 40% in certain applications. That's a big improvement: even a 1% improvement in overall fab throughput can add up to tens of millions of dollars a year in production for a typical fab."

Aston has demonstrated the ability to be quickly retrofitted and optimized into existing production lines, delivering shorter process time and increased through-put and improved yield results within weeks.

Aston is a robust platform that can replace multiple legacy tools and provide unprecedented levels of control across a comprehensive set of applications, including lithography, dielectric and conductive etch and deposition, chamber clean, chamber matching, and abatement. It includes an integrated plasma ionization source, and is robust enough to be used in harsh production environments with corrosive gases and condensation particles. 

Rapid, actionable endpoint detection (EPD) is the most efficient way to run a semiconductor tool and fab. Until now, EPD could not be deployed in many process steps because the required in-situ sensor would not survive the harsh process or chamber cleaning chemicals, would alternatively suffer clogging from condensate deposits, or lacks sensitivity and chemical specificity. 

Historically, fabs were forced to use fixed-time etch or additional etch stop layers in order to ensure that a process was complete with process margin. Aston helps to overcome this challenge and enable EPD by detecting in-situ, exactly when a process has finished, including post-process chamber cleaning, which can reduce the required clean-time by up to 80%.

We've seen unit process throughput increases with Aston that exceed 40% in certain applications. That's a big improvement: even a 1% improvement in overall fab throughput can add up to tens of millions of dollars a year in production for a typical fab. 

In fact, Aston is already helping three of the world’s top five fabs increase their yield, throughput, and efficiency.

Analyst predictions are starting to tell us that the worst chip shortages will start improving later this year, and 2022 will see more chips making their way through the supply chain. For chipmakers, the challenge now is to make this happen without having to throw billions of dollars at the problem. 

Innovative metrology solutions are poised to play a big part in resolving this current crisis–I believe they will also be vital in helping to prevent the next one.


Please join us Tuesday, July 27 at 10am PST for a deep dive webinar on Aston, hosted by The discussion will be led by Saïd Boumsellek , PhD, Atonarp Sr. Director of Instrumentation & Applications, who will detail how Aston achieves improvements in fab throughput, as well as in-situ metrology solutions for advanced CVD and etch applications. Click here to register.

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