Lam Eyes Next $1B Opportunity; The man who helped establish the plasma etcher in the 1980s hopes to ride e-beam to the rescue of a chip-making process running out of gas

Lam Eyes Next $1B Opportunity

Rick Merritt
7/8/2013 12:30 PM EDT

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — At 70, David K. Lam is as excited as ever about the future of the semiconductor industry and what he says is his billion-dollar opportunity to nudge it forward for the second time. Thirty years ago, Lam helped establish the plasma etcher that became a workhorse tool for cutting fine lines in chips. By fielding a reliable, automated version of the tool, the company that bore his name became the first founded by an Asian American to go public on NASDAQ. Today he has a new venture he thinks could give the industry a lift at a time when it’s getting hard to keep making chips faster, smaller, and cheaper. This time Lam is taking what many have seen as a rival technology — direct electron-beam lithography — and bringing it into the conventional process flow. “In the old days most new semiconductor technologies were disruptive now they have to be complementary — you have to find ways to use what you have,” said Lam.Chip giants Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. each pitched in a cool billion dollars last year to help finish development of extreme ultraviolet lithography. EUV is widely seen as the successor to today’s immersion lithography used to print ever finer lines on chips.

EUV has been delayed many times. It involves a huge set of engineering efforts, perhaps rivaled only by putting a man on the moon. The delays forced engineers time and again to find ways to extend the current immersion lithography to keep alive Moore’s Law of producing a generation of smaller, faster cheaper chips every two years or so.

But now immersion is showing signs it is running out of gas and EUV is still not ready. This year for the first time fabs are running wafers twice through the immersion machines to print lines for 20nm chips, adding time and cost to an already complex and expensive process.

If EUV doesn’t come in time for the next generation at 14 nm they may have to use four passes, a.k.a. quad patterning, for some critical layers. Intel has said it sees a path to using quad patterning cost effectively even down to 10nm, but others shudder at the thought.

“When you go to quad or more patterns, the cost are astronomical,” said Lam. “It’s not just the mask costs but cycle times, time-to-market and the complexity of the process that really effects yield — we lump it all these together in total costs.”

Lam shows estimates (above) of lithography rising from 25 percent of the costs of making a chip in 1984 to 70 percent today. “By 2018 if we don’t have EUV and have to go to quad or octal patterning, it will drive costs through the roof — it’s unsustainable,” Lam said.

Multibeam’s e-beam system could eliminate many of the extra steps, Lam claims. The exact number of reduced steps varies based on how a fab uses the technique.

Multibeam got its start as one of a handful of efforts to find an alternative to EUV, using electron beams to write directly on wafers without using masks. But recently, Lam made a course change at Multibeam to parallel rather than collide with the lumbering industry effort.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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