Semicon West 2008

Since the end of last year, it has been clear that capital expenditures by the semiconductor industry have been falling significantly. The first half of 2008 has done nothing to mitigate this pessimism and, if anything, the situation has grown more dire than originally expected. This was the general business climate that set the stage for this year’s Semicon West tradeshow, which took place in San Francisco from July 15 to 17. Organized by the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials Institute (SEMI), Semicon West was held in conjunction with Intersolar North America, the counterpart of the European conference focused on solar energy—a decision that no doubt helped the attendance at the show to increase by 18%, despite the current woes in the general semiconductor sector. Photovoltaic cells, thin film technology and other products relating to solar energy were clearly one of the more active areas of interest at the show. Another novelty was that industry giant Applied Materials chose to locate its booth at a rented space at the nearby Metreon entertainment and shopping center instead of the convention hall.

In addition to hosting the show, SEMI also forecasts sales of semiconductor equipment. Combined sales of wafer processing, test, assembly and packaging, and other equipment were a record $42.77 billion in 2007, a 5.7% increase over 2006. However, the forecast for 2008 is just $34.12 billion, a drop of 20%. This decrease will affect all areas of equipment roughly equally. In spite of this, the wafer processing segment, which has the greatest affinity to analytical instruments, will have the quickest rebound, as it is forecast to grow 15% for 2009. Still, the market will not approach the high water mark of 2007 until 2010.

Geographically, only the Chinese market will remain flat in 2008, while sales in all other regions will fall. The greatest decrease for the year will be in Taiwan, which will slip from the top position, making Japan the largest single source of demand for semiconductor equipment, once again. By 2010, Taiwan’s market is set to regain its position at the top and the Chinese market will approach the size of the North American market.

Although this year’s show was boosted by exhibitors of equipment relating to the solar power industry, vendors of analytical instrumentation were less common than in previous years. Semicon West has always been more oriented toward process equipment, motion control and material, and this emphasis has never been as clear as it was this year. Many instrument companies that exhibited last year were not present this year, while others scaled back their booth offerings. Several, including some of the major analytical suppliers, had no instruments in their booths at all, while others displayed products only from nonanalytical business segments, such as Varian’s display of vacuum products.

Of the companies that were present, several were proud to announce recent acquisitions. Particle Sizing Systems had unfurled a banner publicizing its acquisition by Agilent (see IBO 7/15/08). KLA-Tencor was celebrating its June acquisition of ICOS Vision Systems. In the active area of X-ray analysis, Jordan Valley announced its strong entry into semiconductor process systems through its acquisition of Bede (see IBO 4/15/08). Similarly, Yxlon welcomed the addition of FeinFocus X-ray inspection tools.

There were also some intriguing new products on display. As usual, the type of instrumentation that was best represented was surface science techniques, as various forms of microscopy are indispensable for analyzing semiconductor materials and structures. The most exciting introduction in this area was FEI’s Magellan XHR scanning electron microscope (SEM). This electron microscope provides extremely high resolution, but unlike typical SEMs, the Magellan achieves this resolution at low accelerating voltages through the use of patented focusing techniques. This produces clear images at the subnanometer level of fine details and delicate structures that cannot be seen with higher accelerating voltages. The system is priced at about $1.2 million and production shipments will begin in September.

Horiba had an extensive booth, and its Auto SE spectroscopic ellipsometer was among the most interesting new products. Designed by Horiba’s optical experts at Jobin Yvon Horiba in France, the Auto SE offers a wealth of complementary information about films as thin as 4–5 angstroms. The system is available in both laboratory and automated versions. The system began shipping in April, and is priced from $80,000 to $100,000.

Another standout product was the Vertex continuous gas detections system manufactured by Honeywell Analytics. The Vertex is highly customizable and expandable, with options for 8- to 72-point detection at distances up to 400 feet away. The colorimetry-based Vertex has an internal camera that allows users to remotely view the chemical tape in order to double check an alarm signal. The control cabinet is priced at about $42,000, and individual analyzers (which are RFID tagged for simple plug and play use) are $15,000 each.

Other analytical instrument companies exhibiting included AMETEK, Anton Paar, Brinkmann Instruments, Bruker AXS, Cameca Instruments and JASCO. Semicon West 2009 will be held July 14–16 once again in San Francisco at the Moscone Center.

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